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Icahn to Apple: You need to start buying back more stock

In an open letter to Apple CEO Tim Cook, activist investor Carl Icahn says the stock is worth double its current trading price.

Apple CEO Tim Cook unveils the iPhone 6 and 6 Plus during an event last month. James Martin/CNET

Carl Icahn is again calling for Apple to buy back its own stock, arguing that the iPhone maker's shares should be worth twice as much as their current trading level.

The billionaire activist investor on Thursday published an open letter to Apple CEO Tim Cook, just as he vowed ( a day earlier on Twitter) to do. In the letter, Icahn calls for Apple to use its cash position to accelerate and increase the magnitude of stock repurchases through a tender offer, which is an open call to all investors to sell their stock -- usually at a premium.

"You have said before that the company likes to be 'opportunistic' when repurchasing shares and we appreciate that," Icahn said. "With this letter we simply hope to express to you that now is a very opportunistic time to do so."

Apple shares inched up less than 1 percent to $101.65 in premarket trading. Apple's stock hit an all-time high of $103.74 on Sept. 2, a week before the company introduced the iPhone 6 and 6 Plus. Icahn said the stock should be valued at $203 based on his calculations.

It's the second time Icahn has called for Apple to boost its existing stock buyback program. The investor had backed off of his last proposal in February, but has returned to his previous position. If Apple does offer to buy back more shares, Icahn said he would commit to not shedding his own position, reiterating his belief that the stock is undervalued.

The letter comes a month after Apple released its newest smartphones and a week before it's poised to host another event, likely to reveal new iPads and Macs. The company is counting on its new devices to help it attract new customers and keep current users coming back. The iPhone continues to sell at record numbers, but the iPad has had some troubles. Sales for the tablet have declined and missed analysts' estimates for the past two quarters.

Icahn praised the significantly upgraded iPhone 6 and iPhone 6 Plus, which feature larger screens, improved specifications, and the capability to make mobile payments, noting that he believed the phones would take market share in the premium category. He compared the iPhone and Samsung Galaxy S5 dynamic to a choice between a Mercedes and a Volkswagen -- at roughly the same price.

Apple said it would take Icahn's feedback.

"We always appreciate hearing from our shareholders," said a company spokeswoman. "Since 2013 we've been aggressively executing the largest capital return program in corporate history. As we've said before, we will review the program annually and take into account the input from all of our shareholders."

Apple, which nearly declared bankruptcy before Steve Jobs returned to the helm in 1997, now is the most valuable company in the US. Its market capitalization of more than $600 billion tops Exxon Mobil, Microsoft, and IBM, all giants in their own right. In Apple's last fiscal year, ended Sept. 28, 2013, the company generated $170.91 billion in sales and $37.04 billion in profits.

Its current capital return program calls for returning $130 billion in value to shareholders in 2015 through buybacks and dividends.

Jobs largely ignored shareholders, but Cook has taken a more investor-friendly approach. He met with Icahn a year ago after after the investor built a large stake in Apple shares. At the time, Icahn criticized Apple's buyback program as too small and said he wanted Apple to buy back $50 billion worth of shares. He dropped his proposal in February after saying Apple was close to fulfilling his requested repurchase target.

Since the talks a year ago, Apple has significantly increased its share repurchase plans and boosted its dividend. The company in June also gave investors six additional shares of stock for every Apple share they owned as of June 2. Because of the split, shares now trade at a much lower level than in the past, but it also makes the stock more accessible to investors. It's much cheaper to own a chunk of Apple at about $100 versus $600.

Carl Icahn is a vocal investor.

The extent to which Apple buys back shares is important to Icahn and other investors. The more shares a company buys back relative to its total outstanding shares, the more the move can affect a stock price. In this case, it would mean that Apple's shares would rise as the total stock supply falls and demand continues to stay strong.

In Thursday's open letter, Icahn weighed in on Apple's various product lines, including the newly introduced Apple Watch. The investor believes the smartwatch "will have a significant impact on Apple's growth" over the next three years. He also said he believes that Apple will release an UltraHD television set in fiscal 2016, although he also acknowledged that it may never happen.

The activist investor has had a knack for getting what he wants. His pressure on Motorola after it failed to capitalize on the original Razr's success in 2008 led to then CEO Edward Zander stepping down and the business splitting. Last week, eBay said it would spin off its PayPal unit, a proposal first urged by Icahn earlier this year.

Icahn concluded his new letter by praising Cook and his team from an operational level. But he believes the stock remains undervalued by investors.

"At today's price, Apple is one of the best investments we have ever seen from a risk reward perspective, and the size of our position is a testament to this," he said.

Updated at 7:40 am P.T.: To include a response from Apple.