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.

a promising 1Q13 for Tiffany (TIF)

my bottom line on the stock

I no longer hold TIF.  Great company, expensive stock (the current 22x fiscal 2013 eps is at the high end of the company’s historical PE range).  Also, thematically, I’d prefer to get Consumer Discretionary exposure through firms that cater to average Americans, the segment where I think spreading economic rebound will bring the best year-on-year earnings gains, rather than the affluent.

Nevertheless,

TIF is an important bellwether

for how the wealthy, foreign tourists and China are feeling. So the results are well worth monitoring.   All three  groups appear to be starting to come out of their recent spending funk.

April quarter results

Tiffany reported 1Q13 (ended April) results before the bell yesterday.  They were surprisingly good.  Worldwide sales were up by 9%, yoy.  Eps came in at $.70, also up 9% over the $.64 posted in the year-ago quarter.

The figures were massively better than the consensus estimate of Wall Street analysts, who had penciled in $.52 for the April period.  This is also the first quarter in the past five where yoy earnings gains have been significant.  And 1Q13 exceeded the previous high water mark for the first quarter of $.67 a share set in 2011.  Good news.

all regions looking up

Here are TIF’s yoy sales gains by region:

US          +6% in 1Q13   vs    +2% in 4Q12

Asia Pacific          +15%   vs     +13%

Japan          +2%    vs     -6%

Europe          +6%     vs      +3%

Total         +9%  in 1Q13     vs.     +4% in 4Q12

a dividend increase

Two weeks before the earnings report TIF’s board increased the quarterly per share dividend from $.32 to $.34.  On the one hand, the rise comes at the normal time of year for TIF.  And the bump up is smaller than 2012’s.  On the other, if we make the reasonable (to me, anyway) assumption that the board of directors is targeting a payout of 25% of cash flow and/or a third of profits, the dividend increase signals there’s still upside to the Wall Street consensus.

More important, the board is comfortable that business is improving.

thinking about big integrated oils

hedge funds attacking Big Oil?

Over the weekend I read a blog post (which I can no longer find) in the Financial Times pointing out that activist investors are getting set to attack the large integrated oils.

Why?  

They persist in investing in massive long-term, risky, low-return oil exploration and development projects.  It’s what they do.  In the view of the hedge funds, this makes no sense.  The oils would be better off finding better things to do with their cash flow, returning it to shareholders if nothing else.

I doubt that this will happen   ..not that hedge funds may not try to change oil company investing plans, but I don’t think they’ll be successful.

Big Oil is important in developed countries because the companies spend a ton of money securing access to petroleum.  Nations are heavily dependent on oil to fuel industry.  The oil firms get huge tax breaks for finding and developing oil deposits because these nations are heavily dependent on oil to fuel commerce and for heating.  This is especially true in the US, which is unique among richer nations in not responding to the oil shocks of the 1970s by taxing oil to control consumption.  We do this to support our globally non-competitive, but politically powerful, auto industry (most of which went bankrupt in the Great Recession anyway).

Given the strategic importance of oil,

why are the returns to oil exploration low?

A generation ago, they weren’t.  Drilling took place mainly in the developed world, often on parcels leased to the driller by the government.    The landowner got an initial payment plus a modest percentage of any finds.  Projects that made good economic sense when oil sold for $7 a barrel are bonanzas today.  Big Oil got most of that.

In contrast, major exploratory drilling today is done in emerging economies, where the big untapped pools of oil are.  But ever since the first nationalizations of drilling projects in the Middle East in the 1970s showed how one-sidedly favorable production agreements were to the oil majors, terms have been tilted much more heavily toward the host nations.  Today’s production agreements provide little more than a specified return on capital to the oil explorer.  Price hike windfalls go to the host, not the big oil.

In the face of less favorable economics,

why continue to drill?

Three reasons:

–it’s still profitable

–it’s what the oils do best.  The last round of oil company diversifications, admittedly a long time  ago, were unmitigated disasters, and

–the home countries of the major oils need a steady supply of oil to keep industry humming and citizens warm in winter.

It’s this third reason that I don’t think activists see.   

At some point, shale oil may change the situation.  Even so, I figure it would be politically unacceptable for any big integrated to dismantle, or even substantially curtail, its exploration and development efforts.  The worry would be that in times of shot supply, oil would go solely to project developers.  In fact, Asian countries are concerned about this possibility that they’ve designated their big oils as “national champions,” whose job is to secure oils supplies for the home country.  Profits are secondary.

I don’t think Washington, or London, or Paris would allow its oil exploration firms to drop out of the race, even if short-term economic returns to the companies and their shareholders might be better if they did so.