During the presentation at our annual Partners’ Dinner, we talked about a number of stocks that have suffered multiple compression, where businesses have performed nicely, but have not seen a corresponding uplift in their share price. Apple (AAPL) is the clearest example of this. In 2011, AAPL’s revenue grew 66% and earnings per share grew 78%. Both of these growth rates greatly exceeded market expectations and even our own expectations, which were considerably more optimistic than consensus. Nonetheless, the stock appreciated by only 25%. As a result of this mismatch, AAPL’s P/E multiple compressed by about one third.Several other names in our portfolio including General Motors (GM), Microsoft (MSFT), Delphi (DLPH) and Arkema (France: AKE) also suffered multiple compression in 2011. This trend reversed in the first quarter, with all of these companies enjoying rising share prices that reflect both current earnings performance and some P/E multiple catch-up from last year.
None of our long portfolio investments have recovered with as much fanfare as AAPL, which surged from $405 to $600 per share in the quarter, bringing its P/E back to where it was at the end of 2010. Yet not everyone agrees that AAPL’s stock price is merely playing catch-up to its fundamentals. Some see the stock surge as a bubble, while others go so far as to mock that AAPL is its own asset class.Here are some of the common concerns we have heard:
1.Too many hedge funds own AAPL.
2. If AAPL’s share price doubles, it will have a $1 trillion market capitalization, and everyone knows there can be no such thing as a $1 trillion company.
3. Motorola, Research in Motion and Nokia were all market leaders that proved unable to hold onto their dominant positions and healthy margins; this too will be AAPL’s fate.
4. AAPL can’t possibly maintain its current hyper-growth trajectory.
Let’s address these one at a time:
1.Too many funds. It’s not clear what the objection is here. We suppose the worry is that there is a herd mentality among hedge funds, and that when one fund sells, there could be a cascade of hedge funds selling shares and the stock price will collapse.Moreover, if everyone already owns AAPL, who is left to buy it? Collectively, hedge funds currently hold less than 5% of AAPL’s outstanding shares, and no hedge fund ranks among the top 40 holders of the stock. The average hedge fund has less than 2% of its equity assets in AAPL versus AAPL’s 4% weighting in the S&P 500, which means hedge funds are actually underweight AAPL.
2. A trillion dollars? We’ve scoured the Nasdaq listing rules, reviewed the Securities Exchange Act of 1934, and engaged a leading numerologist. We can’t find any prohibition on trillion dollar market capitalizations.
3. All empires must fall. This concern, while not as arbitrary as the first two, reinforces our belief that the skeptics have a fundamental misunderstanding of AAPL. Their view suggests that AAPL is a hardware company. We disagree.
4. Growing pains. AAPL shares are not priced for growth. Its current valuation is justified without it.
The latter two concerns merit further discussion. Despite its size, AAPL remains one of the most misunderstood stocks in the market. AAPL is a software company. The value comes from iOS, the App store, iTunes and iCloud. A Motorola RAZR phone was a one-time winner because when someone else made a phone that was just a little better, RAZR sales stopped. In contrast, a consumer with one AAPL product tends to want more AAPL products. Once the user has a second device, AAPL has captured the customer. At that point, a future competitor has to make a product that isn’t just a little better, but a lot better to get people to switch. The high switching cost makes AAPL’s business much more defensible than that of its predecessors.
Further, AAPL’s ability to consistently offer innovative features (as opposed to marginal improvements on the current features) encourages users to upgrade every couple of years.This provides a recurring revenue stream. And because AAPL embeds its software into itshardware, it doesn’t face Microsoft’s piracy problem. If the Chinese want AAPL, they haveto buy AAPL. Rather than view AAPL as a hardware company, we see it as a software company that monetizes its value through the repeated sales of high margin hardware.
We continue to hold AAPL. Not only do we think the skeptics are misguided, we believe the shares remain cheap. AAPL trades at a lower multiple than the average company in the S&P500. A below-market multiple implies that this is a below-average company. We have a hard time seeing how anyone ranks AAPL as below average.