Apple is still a growth stock

And an extraordinarily cheap one to boot. It's now trading at 10.1 times trailing earnings.

By Jim J. Jubak Jan 24, 2013 7:38PM
The Apple Inc. logo is displayed on the back of the new MacBook Pro David Paul Morris/Bloomberg via Getty ImagesExactly why are Wall Street’s knickers in such a twist over Apple's (AAPL) first-quarter fiscal 2013 earnings reported Wednesday?

Make no mistake -- they are in a twist. The stock closed down $63.51 a share Thursday. That’s a lot, even for a $500-a-share stock. The loss amounted to a drop of 12.4% for the day.

Apple's crimes?

No year-to-year earnings growth in the quarter. Apple reported earnings for the quarter of $13.81. Although that was 26 cents a share better than the Wall Street consensus, it was still below the $14.03 a share the company reported in the first quarter of fiscal 2012 back in January 2012.

Lowered guidance for the second quarter of fiscal 2013. The company told Wall Street to expect revenue for the quarter of $41 billion to $43 billion against the $45.94 billion Wall Street consensus. Gross margin for the quarter would be 37.5% to 38.5% instead of the 40.5% Wall Street expects.

And most important of all, a lack of catalysts to make investors want to buy the stock.

Why do I call this "most important?" When a stock is as widely owned as Apple was (before the announcement), a company needs to generate huge excitement to bring more money into the shares. Apple needed a Next Big Thing and instead what investors and analysts got was business as usual. 

Apple did sell a record 47.8 million iPhones in the quarter, but -- ho hum -- that was below recent analyst estimates of 48 million (which were indeed below estimates back in the fall of 50 million or 52 million.)

This lack of a Next Big Thing is indeed the common element in much of the analyst commentary Thursday. Sure, the analyst reports worried about increased competition from Samsung and other makers of Android phones, or about supply-chain shortages that cut into sales of Macintosh computers, or Apple’s failure to take more market share in China and India.

None of that would have mattered if Apple CEO Tim Cook had unleashed an Apple TV or something. Absent that, analysts were left with their worries and advice that just about begged Apple to behave like a regular company and sacrifice some of its extraordinary margins in order to build a cheaper phone or tablet so that the company could grab market share. Absent either the Next Big Thing or Apple’s decision to become a regular company, many analysts said they can’t see Apple as a growth stock any more. The stock will start to climb again only after growth investors finish selling and value investors adopt the shares, more than one wrote.

Frankly, I think this is rubbish. The Wall Street consensus is now looking for Apple to grow earnings by 9.74% in the fiscal year that ends in September 2013. (And by 17.7% in the fiscal year that ends in September 2014.)

Which doesn’t make Apple a value stock. Apple remains what it was before this earnings announcement -- an extraordinarily cheap growth stock. Before the news, when Apple sold at $514 a share, it traded at 11.6 times 12-month trailing earnings (for the four quarters that ended with the first quarter of fiscal 2013 reported yesterday.) After Thursday’s slaughter, it traded at 10.1 times trailing 12-month earnings. Subtract out the roughly $145 in cash per share that the company had at the end of December ($137 billion in all) and you’re looking at price-to-earnings ratios of 8.1 pre-announcement and 7.1 after Thursday’s decline. That’s cheap even if Apple is only going to grow earnings by 9.74% in fiscal 2013.

But I don’t think there’s any more reason to believe the analysts in Thursday’s pessimism than in the optimism of three months ago. iPhone volumes climbed 29% year over year even though Apple just started selling phones in China and even though the iPhone 5 isn’t slam-dunk better than the newest Samsung models. In iPads, Apple grew volumes by 48% year over year in the quarter and claimed 56% of market. 

Sure, that share will erode, but remember the analysts who talked about the key Apple advantages of total control of the hardware/software experience and the huge and integrated app store? Well, they were right. Those are huge advantages and they didn’t vanish Wednesday.

I think Apple the stock as opposed to Apple the company has had a problem for the last quarter. The stock was over-owned and without the excitement of the Next Big Thing -- and the need for a Next Big Thing to be even bigger than the Last Big Thing -- there was a scarcity of new money to flow into the stock when it hit $706 back in September.

The stock is 36.2% from that high. After four months of almost constant selling and at $450.50 instead of $706, I think it requires a lot less excitement to drive money into the stock.

But it will require some. Wall Street analysts are cutting ratings and target prices hand over fist and that does generate downward momentum on the stock. After four months of selling, investors are going to be understandably reluctant to jump in at $450 (after all they jumped in at $600 and $550 and $486) until they see some sign that they’re not attempting to catch a falling knife.

So, yes, I think Apple could drop further from here or wallow around at this level not going anywhere for a while until investors can see a catalyst.

What might a catalyst be? Apple could announce a big buyback program or another special dividend that would use up more of the on-shore cash in Apple’s vault. It could announce a number of big deals to increase the universe of wireless carriers that sell iPhones. (Apple still doesn’t sell iPhones through some of the biggest carriers in developing economies.) And third, it could announce a new iPhone and iPad and Macintosh refresh cycle that’s earlier than now expected.

I don’t see any of that happening tomorrow. May or June is likely. March is possible. But I don’t think any earlier.

So even if you believe that Apple’s business model isn’t broken and even if you believe that Apple’s competitive advantages haven’t all vanished almost overnight, you’ll need patience.

Back in September I put a target price of $760 on Apple in my Jubak’s Picks portfolio. On the fundamentals, I still don’t think that’s unreasonable. If Apple only grew earnings in fiscal 2013 by the 9.7% that analysts now project, at $760 Apple would trade at a price-to-earnings ratio of 15.6 at the end of 2013.

But investors trying to value Apple are looking at a much more skeptical universe than four months ago. Given that skepticism, I’d set a target of $600 by September. That would be 13.5 times projected earnings.

And $600 would be roughly a 33% gain from here.

That sounds good, right? But I think you’ll earn it for all the patience you’ll have to expend and all the sleep you’ll lose to volatility.

At the time of this writing, Jim Jubak didn't own shares of any companies mentioned in this post in personal portfolios. The mutual fund he manages, Jubak Global Equity Fund (JUBAX), may or may not own positions in any stock mentioned. The fund did own shares of Apple as of the end of September. For a full list of the stocks in the fund as of the end of the most recent quarter, see the fund's portfolio here. 
Jan 25, 2013 11:18AM
Apple may not be an exciting stock at the present time , but it has a solid core , a successful track record and proven business model that needs some tweaking. Not too long ago the experts had the same adverse comments about IBM. Apple has a good future for patient investors.
Jan 24, 2013 9:16PM

"We simply attempt to be fearful when others are greedy and to be greedy when others are fearful" Warren Buffett


Apple's got $146 PS in cash so it's now really selling for $304 PS which is where it was in October, 2010. If they bought 122m shares for $55b it would reduce their outstanding shares by 13% and increase their EPS by the same.


Feb 5, 2013 1:23PM

Two points.


1.  Maybe I am missing someting about Apple, and I am willing for people to correct me with FACTS (not thumbs downs or a simple grade school "OH ya?"), Apple does not have a mote.  Apple does not have a product with any real barriers to entry.  There are and will be copy-cat products.  All of Apples products are flashes in the pan.  Great if you have a new flash every six months of so, but if you don't Apple is not much of anything.  This is a scary position to be in.  Apple has to get it rigth every time.  Great if you think they can.  Any you only need to be long Apple when they hit the endof that road. to be heurt very badly.


2.  I think all this talk about safety due to Apple's cash pile is all very nice, but people count it like it is cash in their personal bank.  There is no guarantee anyone will ever see any of it or benefit from it.  It is possible Apple will be forced to spend it on R&D, for example, and that R&D may very well produce nothing or very poor returns.  Is this likely?  I don't know, but Apple's cash is not your cash.  Look at Microsoft, they have spent tens of billions of their cash pile and really MSFT is still just a Windows company with very little to show for all that cash.  A one trick pony.

Jan 25, 2013 8:11AM
any cell phone that is SOOO big it won't fit in the front pocket of a pair of blue jeans would be worthless
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