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Would Billionaire Warren Buffett Buy Apple?

March 18, 2013 | About:
​It's no secret that Warren Buffett loves strong consumer brands that generate plenty of cash. He's the ultimate value investor. Well then, why hasn't he bought Apple (AAPL) stock? It's perhaps his unwillingness to go along with the crowd or to follow the likes of some of his fellow billionaires. Buffett has famously said in the past that he doesn't understand technology and he doesn't want to backtrack. He did just buy H.J. Heinz and I doubt he fully understands how ketchup gets made or the manufacturing process. Apple is a similar company to Heinz, making a product that gets manufactured and sold, except it is a tech product rather than a consumable product.

Strong Consumer Brand with Product Loyalty

I argue that Apple isn't a technology company in the conventional sense, but more of a consumer products company. As anyone knows from going to an Apple store or seeing a new Apple product launch, there is no loyalty like Apple loyalty. Customers line up for hours to get the latest Apple products. That is why the company can achieve a 33% operating margin. Customers pay the premium for Apple products because they cannot live without their iPhones or iPads. Owning Apple products is such an integral part of the loyal user's daily life that switching to another brand is not an option. In addition, there isn't a company that offers the same range of products as Apple.

Compare the products of Apple with the likes of Google (GOOG). Would Buffett ever consider buying this tech company that utilizes search algorithms? Probably not. Unlike Google, Apple gets 70% of its revenue from two stable products, its iPhone (50%) and iPad (20%); however, Google is one of Apple's chief competitors in the smartphone industry. But Apple will be able to continue to steal market share from Google in the mobile sector as Apple continues to focus on its key product, the iPhone. Google's true motives for its Android OS and Motorola phones lie in its plans to extend beyond desktop searches into mobile searches. As a result, I think Google is more motivated to be a mobile search and mobile ad leader regardless of its actual OS or hardware market shares. eMarketer projects that Google will be the fastest growing mobile ad platform over the medium term, capturing 22% of the market by 2014, where Facebook will be second with 17% of the market, and Yahoo third at 8%.

Compelling Valuation

The current valuation of Apple appears very attractive, even if you classify it as a mega-cap stock with limited future growth. Nonetheless, Apple is a company that has a forward P/E of 8.69 and $137 billion in cash. Given Apple's current market cap, its cash position represents 33% of its entire market valuation, with the company generating some $13 billion in cash per quarter. In looking at Buffett and Berkshire Hathaway's five largest holdings — Coca-Cola, IBM (IBM), Wells Fargo, American Express and Proctor & Gamble — all have higher P/Es than Apple.

Buffett Bought IBM

Buffett's first foray into technology was his large purchase of IBM, his third largest position representing over 17% of his public securities portfolio. Buffett also added a small position in VeriSign, another tech company, during the fourth quarter. One of the main things that Buffett likes about IBM is its aggressive stock buyback plan. IBM last year added $5 billion to its stock buyback plan, bringing the total buyback to $11.7 billion. Apple last year announced a $10 billion share buyback plan. It's still less than IBM's and IBM has a fraction of the cash on hand as Apple.

Maybe Buffett wants to see more cash returned to shareholders? He's not alone, as that is what most money managers are looking for. Most recently David Einhorn of Greenlight Capital sued Apple, wanting them to issue preferred stock to unlock shareholder value and free up some of its cash hoard (see Einhorn's iPref presentation). Does Apple really need $137 billion in cash?

Buffett Loves to Buy When No One Else Is

It's pretty safe to assume that the fast money has been dumping Apple stock. Apple fell from grace with hedge funds during the fourth quarter, losing its top spot as the most-owned company. Many of the momentum players feel that the company cannot continue to grow as it did in the past. They have sold their long positions or shorted the stock. This is the time when Buffett likes to buy best. He loves to come in when something is out of favor and beaten down. The high for the stock last year was $705. Many traders thought $1000 was the next stop and have gotten burned in this downturn. At around $440, Apple is over $260 off its all-time high in a few short months. This could be a solid time for Buffett to buy. Here are some of the major hedge funds that have been selling off their stake since the fourth quarter.

  • Billionaire Leon Cooperman and Omega Advisors sold off 100% of his stake.
  • Bain Capital's Brookside Capital also sold off 100% of its shares, where during the third quarter Apple was 7% of its portfolio.
  • Billionaire Dan Loeb and Third Point sold of 100% of its stake, which was 9.3% of its third quarter portfolio.
  • Billionaire Stephen Mandel and Lone Pine Capital sold 100% of their shares, which had been 3.2% of Lone Pine's third quarter portfolio.
What's Next for Apple?

As far as the current situation goes, Apple is one of the leaders in the market with its iPhone, but I still see room to grow. The company is in a heated battle with Google for mobile phone dominance, with Google's Android operating system currently leading the way.

Mobile operating system market share (2012 fourth quarter, source: Gartner)

1. Android 70%

2. iOS 21%

3. Blackberry 4%

However, I am less concerned with Google's dominant position, as it allows more room for Apple to grow and capture market share. What's more is that although Apple is still battling Android over mobile OS, Apple also has a dominant position in the hardware game, whereas Google is well behind. Apple is third with respect to mobile hardware market share, where Google's Motorola is ninth with 2%.

Mobile Phone Market Share (2012 fourth quarter, source: Gartner)

1. Samsung 23%[/b]2. Nokia 18%[b]3. Apple 9%

Apple does have a lot going for it in 2013. The company will release a new iPhone and there's the potential deal with China Mobile, the world's largest mobile phone carrier. Chine Mobile's market share in China is falling and now is the time for it to do a deal with Apple. There's also the potential iWatch and the market is clamoring for iTV from Apple. Apple fans want Apple to revolutionize the television the same way they did with the mobile phone. If Apple does that, Buffett won't be the only one wishing he bought Apple at these levels!

Be sure to check out our detailed stock analysis (click here).

About the author:

mdhargrave
Investment adviser and startup striver.

Visit mdhargrave's Website


Rating: 2.6/5 (7 votes)

Comments

crafool
Crafool - 1 year ago
In a word, "Maybe", however it unfortunately it wouldn't be as many would see it.

Buffett likes to buy companies with "durable moats". No denying that Apple has had a great last 5-years, however this has not been Apple's only period of success. Apple enjoyed success with the first Mac computers only to falter and nearly go out of business (Even borrowed money from Microsoft to survive!) . Apple has experienced periods of technology innovation that has lead to first mover wind fall profits, but it has only been first mover advantage that has filled its coffers. Apple has also had periods of missing the next big product upgrade, and has had its coffers looted in an effort to survive.

Apple lacks the Microsoft advantage of being firmly entrenched in technology or IBMs reputation within the business community. Apple is fashion and fad which is a big hit and miss form of business. Buffett is not interested in this type of business. So the short answer is Buffett would not buy Apple on this basis.

Buffett started out by buying "Cigar Butt" businesses. He has recently returned to this investment approach by buying many local and daily newspapers. The idea is that a "Cigar butt" on the ground will smoke and most likely taste terrible, but if the goal is to smoke then the free price can't be over looked.

Apple as a cigar butt could be bought by Buffett. Apple has a reported $130 billion of investments and cash on the balance sheet. I can only surmise that this is Apple clearly signaling to all that they understand the short falls of a fashion and fad business. If Apple stock fell in price to a significant enough discount to its cash horde (Think market cap of less than $95 billion). He would also only do this if he could get control. As a minority shareholder, he would not be able to get at that cash, and Apple would most likely clutch that cash until the last dollar was spent to try and catch the next fashion or fad in technology.

If there was a company that Buffett would buy it would be IBM since he already is buying it, and I think Microsoft that has a durable and competitive edge. Microsoft is going to have record revenues and sales this year. It pays a generous dividend, it raises it pretty regularly and is buying back stock. Yes, it sits on a ton of cash, but nothing like Apple. Microsoft tells me it is far more confident in its future than Apple by doing those previously listed pro-shareholder actions. I might further add that Microsoft after its start up years has ever been at the brink of bankruptcy unlike Apple.

I think it is pretty clear. Buffett most likely would not buy Apple unless it is a "cigar butt", and more likely to buy Microsoft. I think as an investor that others should probably think like Buffett. If you want to buy Apple, don't and buy Microsoft instead!!!

happy investing to all, and please do your own homework before investing!!!

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