Why You Shouldn't Bite into Apple

Victor is a member of The Motley Fool Blog Network -- entries represent the personal opinion of the blogger and are not formally edited.

Apple ) has been in free fall as of late.  From its $705 high in September 2012, Apple stock has dropped by more than 35% to under $450.  This seems sudden for a  technology bellwether like Apple, which was only recently regarded as being the "most valuable company in the world."  The selloff has some Apple faithfuls thinking that now is a good time to gobble up some cheap Apple before it bounces back to $700.  As tempting as that sounds, I'd take a closer look at what you're biting into.  We'll start by taking a look back.

Apple didn't invent the smartphone, but it did set off a smartphone revolution when it introduced the iPhone in 2007.  Apple's sales have gone bananas ever since.  Figure 1 shows how iPhone unit sales grew from 1.46 million in 2007 to more than 125 million in 2012.  That was a spectacular compound annual growth rate of more than 125%.  With growth like that, it's understandable how Apple shares more than tripled in price.

Figure 1  

Then again, that growth rate was also the problem.  Think about it: 125 million is a very large number.  So large, that it would be impossible for Apple to maintain the same level of growth that propelled it to mega-cap status.  How impossible, you ask?  Well, if iPhone sales continued their spectacular historical growth rates, then in five years, Apple would be selling more iPhones than there are people in the world - it is that impossible. 

I realize that Apple has other products, but iPhones still dominate the income statement and constitute two-thirds of earnings.  That makes the iPhone Apple's most important product.  At the same time, iPhone sales and earnings are not reoccurring.  In other words, Apple must sell 125 million new iPhones every year just to maintain current earnings.  The point is, investors were so enamored by Apple's incredible growth, they may have lost sight of whether or not the growth was sustainable.  It clearly was not, in my opinion.  Moving forward, I think Apple faces other problems as well, problems similar to what it faced in the past.

After being the first company to successfully mass-market personal computers in the 1980's, Apple lost its edge in the personal computing market within a decade.  One of the reasons Apple stumbled was its insistence on vertical integration, and what seemed like a superiority complex.  Apple wanted full control over its products, and wanted to command both hardware and software.  That really limited Apple's collaboration with others. For instance, Apple did not allow other manufacturers to use its operating system, perhaps thinking that would result in an inferior final product.  Whatever the case, the approach allowed Apple to have meticulous influence on the end user experience, but also left Apple vulnerable to more efficient models. 

For example, the collaboration between IBM, Microsoft, and Intel that began in the 1980s allowed the companies to divide and conquer. They focused their resources to develop expertise in components, operating systems, and processors, respectively.  The result was the creation of the PC Compatible platform, and the rest is history.  Customers liked the more flexible and cost-efficient platform, Apple got marginalized, and the PC compatible platform is still the de facto worldwide standard for personal computing today. This is not to say that Apple products were ever inferior. But it was clearly very difficult for Apple to take on the coordinated efforts of its competitors.  Thinking that it could was naive at best, and arrogant at worst.

Today Apple has once again sparked a technological revolution with its iPhone.  Yet, as before, it seems to be making similar mistakes.   Once again, Apple is reluctant to give up control of hardware or software. Consider that iPhone owners can't even replace their own batteries without Apple's permission.  And once again, Apple has limited collaboration with others. For example, Apple seems to have no interest in letting other manufacturers use its iOS operating system. And of course, we can expect that the iPhone will always run exclusively on iOS.

Contrast that with how software giant Google ) has approached the market.  Google developed its own mobile phone and its own operating system, Android.  At the same time, Google partnered with other manufacturers like Samsung Electronics : SSNLF) and encouraged them use Android as well.  Based on the numbers, the collaboration seems to be working. 

In the fourth quarter of 2012, Samsung sold over 106 million mobile phones, versus 43 million for Apple.  Samsung achieved this despite being half of Apple's size; it has a market cap of $196 billion versus $405 billion for Apple.  Keep in mind that Samsung is only one of Google's partners. Looking at all smartphone manufacturers together, Android-operated phones captured almost 70% of worldwide market share in 2012, versus less than 20% for the iPhone

I am not saying that Apple is at risk of being eliminated, but the current Apple versus Google story sure does sound a lot like the Apple versus Microsoft story of the 1990s.  Something worth noting this time around is that Google is bringing real competition to Apple, even though smart phones constitute only a small portion of Google's overall business. Make no mistake about it, Google's primary focus and business is in advertising, which made up $43 billion of its $46 billion in 2012 revenues (93% of revenues).  In that respect, we can say that smart phones and Android have been like a side project for Google.

Whatever the case, the point is that Apple's competitors are once again coordinating their efforts, and looking to divide and conquer.  Meanwhile, Apple stubbornly maintains an "us against the world" attitude.  Apple has Google attacking from one side and a syndicate of hardware manufacturers on the other.  How long can Apple realistically fight on both fronts and expect to win?  Sure, Apple has an uncanny ability for making comebacks and is chock full of innovation, but even that has limits.  Word on the street is that Apple's next big thing is an "iWatch." Who's banking a wrist watch revolution?

The bottom line, I think the recent correction in Apple was necessary, and priced in more reasonable expectations.  At under $450, I think Apple may even be a bit undervalued.  Based on average analyst earnings estimates, I would approximate fair value to be around $520.  There may be some value there, but I seriously doubt that Apple will rocket its way back to $705 anytime soon.  Anyone salivating over the thought of doubling up quickly may want to take a big, juicy bite out of something other than Apple, in my opinion.


BellwetherCM has no position in any stocks mentioned. Victor Lai is an investment adviser representative with Bellwether Capital Management LLC, a registered investment adviser. Victor Lai does not own any positions in the securities referenced in this posting. Clients of Bellwether Capital Management LLC may own positions in the securities referenced in this post.  This post is for informational purposes only and does not represent investment advice. You should conduct proper due diligence and/or consult with professional advisors before taking investment action.

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