AAPL’s current problems = Steve Jobs’ legacy

To me, the most striking thing about AAPL’s most recent earnings report is that for the first time I can remember the company is showing the effects of overall industry weakness in its own results.

Before now, the combination of the attractiveness of its new offerings + geographical expansion had rendered it immune both to seasonality of demand and to the business cycle. No more—undeniable evidence that is products have become long in the tooth.

The problem AAPL faces in growing sales and earnings from this point onward is the direct result of the strategy Steve Jobs developed for the company. It’s also the same strategy that led to similar, though more severe, difficulties in his first go-round as CEO of AAPL—and which got him unceremoniously tossed out of the firm he helped found.

AAPL is a high-end niche company. It aims to make distinctively designed, ultra-cool consumer electronics products that it sells to affluent customers who are willing to pay very high prices to be affiliated with the brand.

Historically, luxury brands like AAPL know they will lose their cachet if they develop lower-priced mass market offerings. So they don’t try. For, say, high-end clothing brands this isn’t a huge problem. They can change colors or fabrics and sell multiple versions of the same design to their fan base. That doesn’t appear to work for laptops or smartphones, perhaps because personalizing them with software and information is time-consuming.

However, this leaves AAPL able to boost sales only by developing new blockbuster products. Despite AAPL’s astounding success in creating the iPod and following it with the (even bigger success of the) iPhone, blockbusters are apparently not everyday occurrences.

In addition, Jobs saddled AAPL with two design decisions that, despite his belief that he could impose his taste on the rest of the world, have proved to be incorrect. The original iPad is too big and heavy. APPL has fixed this problem with the mini. Anyone who has used a Galaxy SIII knows the iPhone screen is small and cramped by comparison. Jobs’ ghost has so far prevented AAPL from understanding this.

Of course, the niche strategy does have one short-term advantage. It disguises AAPL’s shortcomings in developing software. But that’s a dubious plus, in my view.

AAPL can change. It has a lot of clever people working for it. And it has a ton of money. It’s most difficult problem, I think, is to have the courage to move on from the Jobs myth it currently embraces.

 

thinking about Apple (AAPL)

setting the stage

(I should say at the outset that, although at one time I owned AAPL for years, I don’t hold it now and haven’t for a long while (except for a couple of days in January).

Q:  What does AAPL do for a living?

A:  It makes smartphones and other mobile computing/consumer electronics devices targeted at affluent consumers willing to pay a premium price for the perceived superior aesthetics and more user-friendly software.

A mouthful.

in other words, a niche player…

If my definition is correct, AAPL has decided to carve out a niche for itself in the high end of the mobile device market.  It’s a very desirable and lucrative niche, one it dominates.  But AAPL is a niche player, nonetheless.  It’s a little like TIF or WYNN.

Like any market strategy, this one has its pluses and minuses.  Anyone listening to the AAPL earnings calls over the past few years can’t help having heard the persistent questioning from Bernstein about what the company would do once everyone who can afford a $600 smartphone already has one.

Move downmarket?  Unlikely.  TIF is the only company I’m aware of who has taken this path and not completely destroyed its brand image–thereby losing its original customers.  Better to lose low-margin sales in the mass market than to kill the goose.

Absent new blockbuster products, however, the price of maintaining the upmarket strategy for AAPL is that sales slow as volume-oriented manufacturers ride down the cost curve and churn out smartphones that retail for $100-$300.

That’s where we are now.

Tons of publicly-available-for-free data has been available for years showing where the smartphone marke, and AAPL, have been heading.  So this outcome can’t have been a surprise.

…with an “ecosystem”

Another characteristic of AAPL devices is the “ecosystem,”  which has tended to make customers more sticky.  All AAPL devices work well together.  All reside in a “walled garden” created by AAPL software–reminiscent of the way AOL worked back in the infancy of the internet.

on this description…

…the current PE of 10.8x–8.0x, after adjusting for cash on the balance sheet–seems crazy low.  It’s less than INTC’s, for instance.

is there more to the story?

There’s an obvious risk in securities analysis of taking the current stock price as the truth and trying to come up with reasons why  it is what it is, rather than taking out a clean sheet of paper and trying to imagine what the future will be like.  The Efficient Markets hypothesis taught in business schools despite overwhelming evidence that emotional storms of greed and fear that routinely roil financial markets, encourages this thinking.

Admittedly possibly being influenced by the recent swoon in the AAPL share price, I’ve been asking myself recently whether the conventional wisdom about AAPL, which is my description above, is correct.

I have two questions.  No answers, but questions anyway.

my questions

1.  Is the high-end niche defensible?

In most luxury retail it is.  In consumer electronics, it clearly isn’t.  Think: Sony.  Based on the (small) number of entrants in the mobile appliance market and the (small) number of products sold, AAPL may be closer to Sony than to Hermès.

2.  Is the “walled garden” a mixed blessing?

It certainly worked for AOL for a long while. But then the Wild West of the early internet was gradually tamed and customers discovered there was a much more interesting world outside the garden.

I don’t think AAPL aficionados have any intention of tunneling out–at least not yet.  But the inaccessibility of AAPL customers to GOOG has prompted the latter to introduce the “hero phone” later in the year through its Motorola Mobility subsidiary.  The idea seems to be to create an attractive, user-friendly, high-end smartphone, load it with GOOG software and sell it at cost.

The “Made in USA” label and the management description of the “hero” seem to me to indicate it’s targeted directly at the large concentration of AAPL customers here in the US.  It’s an open question whether GOOG/Motorola can create a smartphone that’s attractive to iPhone users, or whether they’ll consider switching.  But a technologically inferior PC sure did undermine the Mac with consumers in the 1980s almost solely because it was a lot cheaper (btw, the Mac lost out to IBM with corporate customers because it had no clue how to sell to them).  And the wireless carriers will certainly welcome the “hero,” assuming it works well.

AAPL’s 2Q13–some answers, still some questions

the report

After the New York close yesterday AAPL reported its 2Q13 earnings results (AAPL’s fiscal year ends in September).  Revenues were $43.6 billion, up 9% year-on-year.  EPS, however, were down 18% yoy, at $10.09.   The latter figure was slightly ahead of the Wall Street analyst consensus of $9.97, a number that been ratcheting down in recent weeks.

The company guided to flattish sales in 3Q13, with mild margin contraction.

It announced a 15% increase in the quarterly dividend to $3.05 a share, meaning a current dividend yield of just over 3%.

APPL also intends to buy back $60 billion in stock before the end of calendar 2015.  That would be 15% of the company at current prices.  AAPL now has $147 billion in cash, of which $104 billion is held outside the US.  It won’t touch the foreign holdings for the buyback.  Instead, it will issue bonds in the US to get the money it needs.

This piece of financial engineering will have two impacts.  It will boost the growth rate of EPS by at least an additional 5 percentage points per year.    And the financial leverage will increase AAPL’s return on equity from its already heady 25%+.

The stock was initially up about 5% on this news.  Then, during the conference call, AAPL management said it won’t have its next new product launch until fall.  The gains evaporated and were replaced by a slight loss.

what’s going on

Two factors:

margin erosion

1. smartphones

As I see it (remember, AAPL is pretty opaque), the emergence of Samsung as a competitor in the high end of the smartphone market,where AAPL makes its biggest profits, has caused that segment to mature faster than AAPL had expected.  Unit volume growth is now coming mainly from emerging markets, where the price of AAPL’s cutting-edge phones is too high.  The company is selling older models (iPhone4s) there, at discount prices–and therefore reduced margins.

2. tablets

A year ago, it looked to me like 2/3 of AAPL’s tablet volume was from its newest model iPads.  Today, unit volumes are much higher, but less than a quarter are the newest 10″ iPads.  The rest is a combination of iPad minis (a runaway success) and bulk sales of iPad2s to institutions.   Both of the latter are at lower margins.

My guess is that we’re at or near a gross margin low point now.

continuing PE multiple contraction

The maturing of the smartphone market has been actively discussed in the financial community for a couple of years.  In my view, worry about this possibility is the main reason that, despite booming sales and earnings, the price earnings multiple on AAPL’s stock had contracted from the high teens to around 12 by the second half of last year.  Relative to the market, the multiple went from a premium of 25% to a discount of 25% over the same time period.

Unpleasant for holders, maybe, but understandable.

Over the past 6-8 months, however, the multiple has contracted further, both in absolute terms (to under 10) and relative (to a discount of more than 40%).  In fact, yesterday’s Wall Street Journal had an article comparing AAPL with HWP and DELL.  That’s kind of like comparing night and day–the single thing I can see that ties AAPL to these two truly terrible companies is the similarity of their price earnings multiples.

Yes, when fast growers begin to slow down, the PE contracts, often violently.  And because a good portion of the contraction is an emotional thing, the multiple shrinkage is usually greater than one would expect.  But even seeing this process over and over, I didn’t imagine that a fundamentally sound company like AAPL could be trading at 9x in a market trading at 15x.

where to from here?

Note, first, that I’ve been wrong about the stock for a while.

I think the stock buyback makes economic sense, and it will probably at least stabilize the AAPL stock price.  I don’t think the addition of debt to the capital structure will have any effect.

It may be a big stretch, but to me the 15% dividend increase says that’s what AAPL’s board expects its earnings growth rate over the next few years to be, financial engineering aside.  I think that’s a reasonable assumption, and could be conservative.

AAPL management would do the most for its stock by being more forthright with investors about current business challenges and how it plans to deal with them.  That’s not likely, however, if the 2Q13 earnings call is any indication.

That leaves holders waiting for new product announcements–and subsequent earnings acceleration–at summer’s end.

 

what do gold and AAPL have in common?

common factors

–they’re both large positive bets (large holdings) of hedge funds–and of many retail investors

–both have delivered weak performance over the past year, after extended periods of substantial gains.  And the losses have occurred during a time of generally stable conditions for the world economy, with ample liquidity and strong inflows of money into financial products

–recent trading in both seems to me to be giving signs of forced or distressed selling

are these factors connected?  

It’s hard to know, since global hedge fund disclosure is incomplete–and there’s ample evidence that what disclosure there is can’t be relied on.  However, I think it’s reasonable to assume they are.

if so, what does this imply?

In my experience, a professional investor goes through a three-step process as he realizes he’s made a mistake–or that his previously good idea is no longer working.  He:

–stops adding to the position when new money comes in, effectively shrinking its relative size,

–begins to sell, to further lessen the negative effect of the position on performance, and

–accelerates the selling when the position is small enough the extra visibility and extra downward pressure on price make little difference.

A professional investor can go through these states in the blink of an eye, or it can take a long period of time. A lot depends on style, self-awareness and how ugly the underperformance is.  Anyone who operates on margin may also get additional feedback from his lenders.

Many retail investors, in my experience, just panic–very close to the bottom.

Recent price action in gold and in AAPL strike me as Stage-Three end-game activity–some combination of panic, response to margin calls and/or dumping of the remainders of positions being sold over long periods.

is this an opportunity to buy?

gold: 

For me, the answer here is easy.  It’s “No.”  The key supply-demand issue is whether central banks in emerging markets will continue to buy gold in the aggressive way they have done over the past several years.  I have no idea.  So I’m clearly the “dumb money” in this arena–the strongest reason there is to stay away.

AAPL:

We’ll have more information tomorrow, after AAPL reports its latest quarterly earnings.

The stock is now trading at less than 9x historic earnings and yielding 2.7%.  The shares have underperformed the S&P 500 by more than 50 percentage points since last September.

The company has no debt and its cash holdings are approaching almost half the market cap.

If there’s anything “wrong” with the stock, it’s that its fall from grace has been so extreme.  That prompts the question, “What must sellers know that I don’t?”

How do you overcome aversion, based on an extended decline, to a stock that looks like a $100 bill lying on the street?  The first step, I think, is to look for signs that the waves of selling that have pummeled AAPL are over.   This means having AAPL announce bad news and have the stock go up, rather than sell of further.  That’s why tomorrow’s earnings report may be important.

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Einhorn stops Apple (APPL) shareholder vote on preferred stock

background

Hedge fund manager David Einhorn has been urging AAPL for some time to adopt his pet idea of issuing preferred stock that would basically be backed by the company’s gigantic accumulated cash position.

APPL isn’t interested.

In the Steve Jobs days, I think the AAPL CEO would have told Mr. Einhorn, either directly or through the press, that his answer was “No!!,” and that Einhorn should stop trying to interfere with the running of AAPL’s business.  This probably would have been the end of the matter.

The current AAPL management didn’t do that.  Instead, it put on the agenda at the company’s annual meeting this week a shareholder vote to change the company’s charter in a way that would forbid the kind of perpetual preferred Einhorn is championing (see my analysis of the preferred idea).

Not only that, but AAPL wrapped this proposal in a package of others and asked for a single vote on the whole bundle.

last week

Mr. Einhorn sued, saying in effect that the bundling violates both common sense and SEC rules.  On Friday, a federal judge agreed–and barred a vote on “Proposal #2″ at this annual meeting.

According to the Financial Timesby the time of the court ruling AAPL had received ballots representing 40% of the outstanding shares.  Of them, 97.5% had voted for the company and, by implication, against Mr. Einhorn.

the voting results are no surprise

In my experience, individual shareholders vote with management no matter whether it’s in their economic interest or not.  Hard for me to understand, but easy to predict.

For almost two decades, the SEC has been pushing the compliance departments of professional money managers on proxy voting.  The regulator wants them to take seriously their fiduciary obligation to vote the shares under their stewardship in the best interests of their customers–or else.  This pressure has resulted in the rise of third-party firms like ISS and Glass Lewis, which have set themselves up as independent experts in proxy analysis and making shareholder-friendly voting recommendations.  The path of least resistance for institutional investors seems to me to be to subscribe to  one of these firms’ services and vote accordingly.

Both ISS and GL recommended voting for AAPL in this matter.

In other words, all the individuals and all the traditional institutions were going to vote against Einhorn.

why a vote at all?   …and why this vote?

Mr. Einhorn points out on the Greenlight Capital website that because no one has tried his preferred suggestion, that doesn’t mean it’s a bad idea.  Of course, it doesn’t mean it’s a good one either  …or a good one for AAPL.

What’s clear, however, is that AAPL doesn’t want to discuss the idea publicly–even to say that it’s a thought, but one that won’t work for AAPL.  I think this is a mistake.

I think I understand why AAPL set up the vote as a bundle, though, rather than a straight yes-or-no on the preferred issue alone.  From my common sense viewpoint, as well as from an SEC perspective, grouping a bunch of disparate proposals together just doesn’t seem fair.  (In addition, for what it’s worth, I don’t see how narrowing the scope of possible future preferred issues serves shareholders interests.  It just makes Mr. Einhorn go away.)

Why bundle?  AAPL must know that institutions pretty much vote whatever way ISS tells them.  I think AAPL presented the preferred proposal to the advisory service in a package that it simply couldn’t recommend voting against.  It thereby also avoided the risk that if the preferred ban were offered separately ISS would recommend a “no” vote, which a ton of institutional holders would then cast.

AAPL management hasn’t done itself any favors, 

…in my view.

The company’s unwillingness to lay out reasons–like that the preferreds might constrain needed US-sourced cash flow–for opposing the Einhorn proposal make management look weak.

The bundling makes the company look like it has something to hide.

AAPL’s odd behavior suggests there’s considerably more to this story than meets the eye.

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