Steve Jobs, Apple and AAPL

Featuring Lutts’ Logic:

Steve Jobs, Apple and AAPL.
Why Good Stocks Top

The Next Apple?

Today’s first topic is Steve Jobs, Apple and AAPL.
Steve Jobs, of course, is the man at the head of the company.  Apple is the company itself.  And AAPL is the stock.

They are three separate entities.  But investors often make the mistake of confusing them, and that can be dangerous.

For example, the media in recent weeks have focused on Steve Jobs and his health (first there was pancreatic cancer and now there’s an unspecified “hormone imbalance”), and worried about the effect on the company should Steve’s health problems force him to step down.  Others have wondered how much transparency there should be about a CEO’s health in the first place, bringing into play the issue of privacy.  Still others (typically members of the cult of Apple) have said we should ignore the issue and just have faith that Steve, treated by the best doctors money can buy, will recover and Apple will continue to make “insanely great” products.

Me, I wish him a speedy recovery.  After all, he and I (and Bill Gates as well) were all born in the same year, and I hope all three of us have many more productive decades on this side of the grass.

But I’m not making the mistake of thinking that if Steve returns to good health AAPL will continue to be a fine investment.

As to the health of the company, I’m acutely interested.  I’ve been a devoted Mac user since 1987.  The Cabot office is 68% Mac-based, my home is totally Mac-based, and I love my iPhone, which currently holds 2,978 songs, 456 photos and a couple videos.

Also, I’ve attended every East Coast Macworld (2005 was the last).  At one early show I even won a raffle for a whopping 1MB of RAM!  And I followed Tuesday’s Macworld keynote speech online with great interest, happy to see the new features in iLife as well as the new pricing structure and removal of copy-prevention measures for songs in iTunes … but disappointed in the lack of hardware improvements.

Furthermore, we at Cabot have made great profits by investing in AAPL several times over the decades, most recently taking advantage of the iMac boom (1998-1999) and the iTunes store boom (2003-2007).

But I’m not letting my love of Apple products and services or our previous profits in the stock get in the way of my judgment as an investor.  And that judgment is simply this:

AAPL’s best days as an investment are over.  In fact, APPL is likely to underperform the market in the years ahead.  And here’s why.

AAPL–the stock–reached the point of peak perception at the end of 2007 when the iPhone was the hottest product of the holiday season and the stock topped out at 203 per share.  At the same time, the stock’s relative performance (RP) line–which measures the performance of the stock relative to the broad market–topped out as well.  Yes, the RP line did return to the same level in May, July and August of 2008, but to chart-savvy technicians, that long top only served to accentuate the message that AAPL’s positive momentum had ended.  (Note the continuing distinction between Apple and AAPL.)

Since then, competitors–most notably Research in Motion (RIMM)–have embraced the idea of the touch-screen phone, though none has executed it as elegantly as Apple.  More importantly, the growth rates of both Apple’s revenues and earnings are now decelerating.  Finally, I note that at the end of the second quarter, AAPL was owned by a whopping 885 mutual funds … all of which are now potential sellers.

Now, none of these, factors, individually, is the kiss of death, but when I see them all together, I conclude that it’s highly likely that the stock’s best days are over.  Not that it will never reach new highs … simply that there are far better growth investments available now.

Here’s the logic.

Remember, what makes a stock go up is the improving perception, by an increasing number of investors (especially institutional investors), of the company’s earnings power.  Back in 2003, when AAPL was trading at a split-adjusted 6 and the company announced the launch of the iTunes Music Store, critics carped that the prices for songs were too high, or that not enough music labels would sign on or that the copy-protection scheme was too limiting.  But they were all wrong, and as their perceptions improved about the ability of the iTunes Music Store (now called simply the iTunes Store) to earn lots of money, more people–both individuals and institutions– became buyers of AAPL.  Their buying made the stock go up.

Equally important, more people came to love Apple, for its witty TV ads, for its beautiful and functional stores, and for its elegant products, which have brought easy-to-use technology to the masses.  And as more individuals bought the stock, and more professionals bought the stock, AAPL went up, and up, and up.  (The gain from the 2003 low to the 2007 high was 3,090%.)  But at some point, every company reaches a point of peak perception, a point where the greatest number of people love it, and that’s the point at which the stock tops out.

For years, my father’s favorite example of this phenomenon was International Business Machines (IBM), which stopped outperforming the market in 1984 (the year Apple launched the Macintosh with its famous “1984” television commercial during the Super Bowl).  IBM, of course, was so respected that there was a business axiom, “No one ever got fired for buying IBM.”

Before that he’d seen Eastman Kodak (EK) stop beating the market way back 1973.  That was far before digital photography built the company’s coffin; the stock simply collapsed after perception peaked.

More recently, I’ve seen other stocks follow the same chart pattern.  Cisco, Dell, Home Depot and Microsoft all have RP lines that peaked at the end of 1999.  Remember the perception back then?  These companies and their stocks were loved!  The future was going to be great!  And as a result, their stocks were trading at high valuations.  But when the future turned out to be not as good as expected, the stocks sold off.  Despite the fact that all four are still great companies and still growing, their stocks are dramatically lower.

Cisco (CSCO) is now more than twice the size it was in 2000, but its stock is off 79%.
Dell (DELL) is now more than twice the size it was in 2000, but its stock is off 82%.
Home Depot (HD) is now more than twice the size it was in 2000, but its stock is off 66%.
Microsoft (MSFT) is now more than twice the size it was in 2000, but its stock is off 63%.

Now, I’m not saying that AAPL is going to collapse from here; it may well rally if we get a supportive market.  After all, it’s already off 55% from its December 2007 high.  I’m just saying there’s no longer a good reason to own the stock.  I’m saying that Apple, which Fortune magazine named the most admired company in the United States in 2008, will now slowly become less-loved, and as a result, the stock will no longer be an outperformer, despite the fact that the company continues to grow sales and earnings.

Investors who bought in the past couple years and are sitting on losing positions will eventually get tired of holding a loser and they’ll sell, putting pressure on the stock.  Growth fund managers will slowly sell it from their portfolios, while managers who value stability will buy it … but only on dips.  And AAPL’s RP peak will fade into history.

At the same time, sales and earnings will keep growing, but they’ll be growing more slowly.  After all, Apple now brings in $32 billion a year, and increased size eventually translates into slower growth.

And it could get worse.  Consider what will happen if the current slowdown in consumer spending–driven by a trend toward reduced credit–continues.  Apple’s rate of growth could slow further.  Or consider what could happen if cash-strapped governments decide that taxing Internet purchases (like iTunes products) will help them meet their budgets.  That would be another bite out of the Apple.  Admittedly, these things are only hypothetical–but so is Steve Jobs’ return to health.

The most important thing for an investor in growth stocks to remember is that the market is always looking ahead.  Yesterday’s news is worth nothing; it’s next month’s news–and the news that’s expected six months from now–that matters.  And the actions of the stock every day (particularly a heavily traded stock like AAPL) reflect all the various opinions and perceptions about that future, all the time.

Today, while the market has rallied for six week, AAPL’s chart is still under pressure; the stock has failed to better its December high.  And buying volume is tepid.  Combined with slowing fundamentals and an awareness of public sentiment, it reinforces my conclusion that the point of peak perception has likely passed for AAPL.

Your job now–and ours–is to find the next Apple … or at least the next hot stock.

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So how do you find a hot stock? Watch charts, of course, and pay more attention when you find a young unknown company that’s growing fast.

In 2006, Crocs (CROX) was the ticket.  People thought their shoes were funny looking, but they sold like hotcakes, profit margins were excellent considering the industry, and as perceptions improved, the stock doubled in its first year.

In 2007, First Solar (FSLR) was a huge winner.  Virtually unknown at the start of the year with just 50 mutual fund owners (and in a relatively tiny industry), its screaming growth and a public eager to embrace alternative energy spurred the stock to a gain of 850% in the year.

2008, of course, was a bust except for a few commodity-related stocks in the spring.  We latched on to Continental Resources (CLR), for example, for a big gain.  While the year was enormously educational, I’m glad it’s gone.

Now I have great expectations for 2009, and I’m confident the best performers will once again be stocks of companies that are not well loved and that are mostly unknown!

In recent issues I’ve recommended several medical companies that are focused on genetic science, and I still think highly of them.  Growth trends are very good, and the charts tell us investors are slowly discovering these companies and getting on board.

And today I want to give you another name in the medical field.

It’s Thoratec (THOR), and it was last mentioned here on December 11, when it was trading at 28.  Today it’s just a little higher, so it hasn’t gotten away.  But the stock’s main trend is up, and thus the odds are very good that the stock will break out above its recent high of 33 before long (as long as the market cooperates).

The company’s business is artificial hearts and heart pumps, a business where demand is driven by unstoppable demographic forces.  The stock was featured in Cabot Top Ten Report on December 22, and here’s some of what editor Michael Cintolo wrote:

“For heart patients awaiting transplants, Thoratec’s HeartMate ventricular assist pumps are a literal lifesaver, helping one chamber of the heart pump enough blood until a donor is found. The big buzz now is that patients too ill for transplants have a significantly higher chance of long-term survival (without suffering damaging strokes) when they use Thoratec’s HeartMate II rather than the older HeartMate XVE. The company is waiting for FDA approval for this new usage, and investors are anticipating that it will be received. In the meantime, Thoratec has replaced Dun & Bradstreet in the S&P MidCap 400 Index and U.B.S has picked up coverage of its stock. Everything seems to be breaking Thoratec’s way.”

Yours in pursuit of wisdom and wealth,

Timothy Lutts
Cabot Wealth Advisory

Editor’s Note: Cabot Top Ten Report uses Cabot’s proprietary screening software to ferret out the 10 strongest stocks each week, no matter what’s happening in the market. Even during this year’s bear market, Cabot Top Ten Report has found winners in stocks like Cleveland-Cliffs, which doubled in four months, Continental Resources, which rose 160% from its recommendation to its peak, and Walter Industries, which rocketed from 42 in January to 112 in early July. Cabot Top Ten Report finds the top stocks of each bull market early in their uptrends and right now, editor Michael Cintolo is busy discovering the market’s next leaders. Click the link below to get started today.


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