Chart of the day, Apple valuation edition

By Felix Salmon
November 28, 2011
Andy Zaky at Bullish Cross has a great post on Apple's valuation, showing the astonishing degree to which the market is discounting the value of a dollar of Apple's earnings today, compared to just two years ago.

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Andy Zaky at Bullish Cross has a great post on Apple’s valuation, showing the astonishing degree to which the market is discounting the value of a dollar of Apple’s earnings today, compared to just two years ago. Back then, it was worth $32; now, it’s worth just $13. In the eyes of the market, Apple earnings are worth less than those of Cisco, Comcast, IBM, or AT&T, and are worth just 13% of the earnings of Amazon.

All of which raises the obvious question: why is Apple trading at such a seemingly depressed level? I have a few ideas, none of which are particularly compelling.

  1. It’s run out of buyers. The Apple bull run has been going on for so long, at this point, that anybody who wanted to buy it has bought it already. And they’ve done pretty well by doing so. If they want to rebalance so that they keep their Apple holdings constant as a percentage of their total portfolio, they’re more likely to be selling than they are to be buying.
  2. We’re all long Apple already. Apple is now firmly ensconced in its position as one of the two most valuable companies on the US stock market, in a world where ETFs and index funds are only getting more popular. As a result, if you’re long the S&P 500, you’re long Apple in quite a big way. And a large amount of the trade in Apple is going to be index-arbitrage trading. This is inevitably going to increase the correlation between Apple and the S&P 500. And when the S&P 500 has much lower earnings growth than Apple, that’s going to act as a drag on Apple’s share-price growth.
  3. The headline share price is high. This shouldn’t matter, but it does. Small investors feel a bit weird about spending $2,500 on Apple stock and getting the grand total of seven shares in return. And the high share price sends a message to bigger investors, too: it says that Apple isn’t in the business of managing its share price, and is not about to engage in shenanigans like stock buybacks. Indeed, the market shouldn’t even expect a dividend any time in the foreseeable future, despite the fact that Apple clearly has more cash than it knows what to do with.
  4. The headline market capitalization is high. When a company is worth $340 billion, a 10% rise in the share price means that the stock market has created $34 billion of new wealth. Which is harder than creating $3 billion of new wealth.
  5. The appeal of the mean-reversion hypothesis. Apple can’t go on increasing its rate of earnings growth forever; indeed, it can’t even sustain its current level of earnings growth very long. It’s so big, and has come so far, and is making so much money, that at some point the only way to go is down. This is true on a conceptual level, but I don’t think it’s true on a practical level: Apple’s market share is still pretty small in the US, and positively tiny in the rest of the world. There’s a lot of growth potential left in this company, as smartphones increase their global penetration and as more people move from Windows to Macintosh.
  6. Steve Jobs is dead. Apple’s p/e ratios started shrinking at about the same time that Jobs did, and all the hagiographic attention on how unique Jobs was only serves to remind us that he’s not around any more. If the next generation of Apple products is a success, people will still give Jobs the credit, and worry that Tim Cook won’t be able to replicate Jobs’s achievements. It’s going to take a long time before Cook can truly own the company and come out from Jobs’s shadow; in the meantime, investors are naturally going to worry that the glory years are over.
  7. Apple’s earnings come from the frothiest, most disposable part of consumer income, which is the first part of consumer spending to go away if and when the economy heads south. As such, Apple’s more vulnerable to an economic downturn than most of its peers.
  8. There isn’t a real bear case for Apple: the closest thing I can find is all technical-analysis astrology. And the way that markets work, stocks are much more likely to rise when people are bearish than when they’re bullish. No one seems to think that Apple is actually overvalued; indeed, analysts are ratcheting up their earnings forecasts at an astonishing pace. Here’s a table from Bill Maurer:

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Estimates are up 12% over the past 90 days for the first quarter of 2012, and they’re up 7.5% over the past 90 days for the full year. This also helps explain the compression in forward p/e ratios.

What’s certain here is that the market simply isn’t rewarding Apple for its astonishing level of earnings growth of late. Which is weird, since that kind of earnings growth really wasn’t priced in a couple of years ago. Zaky’s convinced we’re seeing a market failure here, and I’m not convinced he’s wrong. But I’d be happier if someone could persuade me that there’s actually a good reason why Apple earnings seem to be worth so much less than so many of Apple’s less-successful peers.

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