There’s a seeming contradiction when it comes to Apple Inc. (NASDAQ:AAPL). Apple stock now sits just off an all-time high. Last Thursday, its market capitalization hit $934 billion — the highest ever for a U.S. company. The iPhone is the most profitable product ever created — and it’s driven huge returns in AAPL stock, which has nearly tripled over the past five years and risen 600%+ over the past decade.
And yet Apple stock remains cheap. Dirt-cheap, it would seem. At these all-time highs, AAPL still is valued at a little over 14x FY19 (ending September) consensus EPS estimates. The figure is even lower when considering Apple’s huge cash balance.
The S&P 500 as a whole trades at more than 17x forward earnings, according to data compiled by Birinyi Associates. In other words, the world’s most valuable company, and the world’s most profitable company — ever — trades at a discount to the overall stock market. How can that be?
But looking closely at Apple’s financials and its outlook, there are good reasons why AAPL stock looks so cheap. Apple is the world’s most valuable company — and it’s also one of the most analyzed. The cheap multiple here isn’t due to the market not paying attention. Real risks lie ahead for Apple.
Given the importance of AAPL stock to the market as a whole, investors of all stripes need to understand those risks. And even AAPL bulls should understand who’s on the other side of the trade — and what the downside could be in AAPL stock.
How Cheap is Apple Stock?
At the moment, AAPL stock trades at about 16.5x consensus EPS for fiscal 2018. That’s a relatively cheap multiple — but it’s even cheaper considering the company still has about $31 per share in net cash, roughly one-sixth of its market capitalization. Backing out that cash, Apple stock trades at what seems like a ridiculously low multiple: 13.8x earnings.
It’s a number that seems like an outlier, particularly among large-cap tech. Alphabet Inc (NASDAQ:GOOGL,GOOG), Facebook Inc (NASDAQ:FB), and Microsoft Corporation (NASDAQ:MSFT) all trade at at least 20x 2018 earnings, even backing out their own net cash balances. And of course Amazon.com, Inc. (NASDAQ:AMZN) and Netflix, Inc. (NASDAQ:NFLX) trade at nose-bleed valuations (80x forward earnings for AMZN, 71x for NFLX).
Simply applying a 20x earnings multiple — still below most of its large-cap tech rivals, which by the way all make much less money than Apple — would value AAPL stock at about $260, 38% higher than current levels. Even the 24x multiple (again, excluding net cash) assigned to Microsoft stock doesn’t seem particularly out of line for Apple. It’s not as if Microsoft is a growth juggernaut. In fact, the Street projects Apple to grow revenue faster than Microsoft in their respective fiscal years. 24x earnings plus the $31 per share in cash would value Apple stock at over $300, 62% higher than current levels.
AAPL stock isn’t just being treated by the market as an average stock. It’s being valued well below the average stock, and sharply less than its similarly well-known and widely-owned tech peers. And this isn’t a new development: Apple’s forward P/E actually is toward the higher end of its multi-year range. AAPL on several occasions has traded below 12x forward earnings — a multiple that suggests its business actually is headed for a decline.
Why? Why is the market acting as if Apple’s earnings growth is going to come to an end?
4 Big Risks for Apple Stock:
Risk #1: The Commoditization Risk
There are a number of reasons why investors are skeptical toward Apple’s long-term growth prospects. Most notably, the company remains reliant on the iPhone. And the history of tech hardware shows that eventually even the best products eventually become commoditized.
It happened to IBM (NYSE:IBM) in mainframes. It happened to Dell Technologies Inc (NYSE:DVMT) and HP Inc (NYSE:HPQ) in PCs — after the Windows operating system helped end Apple’s early leadership in that category. BlackBerry Ltd (NYSE:BB) once was the world’s leader in smartphones; its stock has fallen more than 90% from its June 2008 peak.
All of these companies were victims of commoditization (though all four, notably BlackBerry, also have their share of self-inflicted wounds as well). As hardware products improve, incremental upgrades become less compelling — lengthening replacement cycles. Meanwhile, low-cost competitors inevitably enter with a “good enough” product, undercutting pricing — and margins.
In fact, commoditization already has hit Apple — on multiple fronts. The iPad was introduced in 2010, and basically created the tablet category. It was a massive hit. Revenue neared $5 billion in fiscal 2010 – in less than nine months. By fiscal 2012, sales had exploded to $31 billion — 20% of Apple’s total revenue. But less than three years after its launch, the iPad already had peaked. With cheaper Android alternatives proliferating, iPad revenue would fall 40% over the next four years.
Source: Shutterstock I do see long-term risk to the iPhone, but there’s also a scenario where Apple can offset any declines in that product. Services, Watch, and maybe AirPods and the HomePod can pick up some of the slack. Apple’s immense cash hoard is setting up a windfall for shareholders, as I wrote back in January. Even ~zero revenue growth likely leads to some profit growth, given that gross margins in the Service segment are higher than those in hardware categories. At 14x earnings, ‘some’ profit growth is enough to justify the current valuation.
Apple’s performance so far in 2018 also has undercut the bear case. I wrote after the Q2 report that even a skeptic like myself had to be impressed. The growth in China so far this year is important. So is the performance of the X. The Services business, as Munster pointed out, is becoming a bigger part of the narrative as it becomes a larger part of revenue. And somewhat quietly, margin pressures from a stronger U.S. dollar and higher memory prices are starting to reverse in Apple’s favor.
Still, from a long-term perspective, I do believe the bill is going to come due for Apple at some point.
Every hardware manufacturer has lost its technological advantage eventually. And I do believe the bear case merits consideration — even from ardent Apple bulls. There’s a reason why Apple stock looks cheap, and why it’s looked cheap for years. While the company may be able to grind out earnings growth, and upside in Apple stock, going forward, the long-term risks to the business model suggest that Apple stock never will get a market-level earnings multiple again.
As of this writing, Vince Martin has no positions in any securities mentioned.
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