Apple (AAPL) today

the stock vs. the company

the company

As a company, Apple has in most respects followed the typical pattern for businesses of high-flying growth stocks.

The company stabilized itself as a computer maker, after a brief flirtation with bankruptcy, with the return of Steve Jobs as CEO.  It took a chance on making the iPod, which a geeky DJ apparently brought to it.  That produced a series of big profit increases that lasted several years and doubled this size of the company.  Just as the iPod wave was cresting, Apple reinvented itself again, as the iPhone company.  Another huge profit surge followed, which crested as the global market for expensive smartphones matured.

Yes, Apple has reinvented itself again as the iPad company, but each blockbuster must be progressively larger to move the profit needle for a firm whose income has grown exponentially over the past decade.  The iPad doesn’t have enough oomph to do so.  Heartless as it may seem, Apple has gone ex-growth.

Look at IBM, or Oracle, or Cisco, or Wal-Mart  …or, on a smaller scale, the Cheesecake Factory or Chicos or PF Chang.  Same pattern.

the stock

What has been strange about Apple has been the behavior of its stock.  Typically, as a company’s earnings begin to accelerate, the price-earnings multiple begins to expand as well.  So the positive effect of the earnings growth is magnified.  When (or just before) earnings growth beings to disappoint, as it sooner or later will the PE begins to contract.–and the stock plunges.  Timing this shift is the key issue for growth investors.

Not so much with AAPL.  Its PE peaked in 2008, four years prior to the peak in earnings (which were, by the way, almost 8x the 2008 level).  The multiple contraction has been pretty continuous, moving from 30x ( and 1.8x the market multiple) in 2008 to 12.3x (and a .7x relative multiple) for 2013.

an investment thesis

Growth investors, who are searching for the next AAPL, have abandoned ship andgone elsewhere, leaving the field to their value counterparts.

For value investors, I think the key question revolves around the PE.  When growth stocks fall from grace, the multiple typically contracts severely–and over a long period of time.  The decline ends in an overreaction on the downside.

Looking at AAPL,nine months of stock price pain (late 2012 – mid-2013) would be unusually short period of time.  But, then, the AAPL multiple has already been contracting for five years.

Although I’m not a value investor (read: although I’m no good at making these judgments), my sense is that the AAPL PE is too low.  I don’t feel an overpowering urge to buy the stock.  But 10% earnings growth + one point of multiple expansion this year doesn’t sound so bad, either.




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