By Philip Elmer-DeWitt
February 18, 2012

An analyst with a $270 target and “sell short” rating may have a credibility problem

I applaud my CNNMoney colleague Hibah Yousuf for trying to pin down which hedge funds have been dumping their Apple (AAPL) shares lately, but I’m not sure I would have used ACI Research’s Edward Zabitsky as a source for a piece entitled Not everyone loves Apple’s stock.

To call Zabitsky’s most recent note — published Jan. 25 — an outlier is an understatement. He set a $270 price target on a day when the stock was trading over $450 and advised investors to “sell short” just before a run that would take Apple to over $526.

The following Monday CNBC did something it rarely does. It invited Zabitsky to appear on its Halftime Report and grilled him mercilessly — and quite skeptically — for six long minutes. See here.

Long before then, however, Zabitsky was famous among Apple investors for his “sky is falling” Apple soundbites. AAPLInvestors Terry Gregory has been collecting them on his iPhone Death Watch for years:

  • “When the iPhone came out, it was so far beyond what was out there on the market, pretty much up until now, but with what’s coming out from competitors, that advantage is going away. For the first time, Apple’s going to be faced with a serious growth challenge.” 22 April 2009
  • “The iPhone is a bandwidth hog and is not profitable for carriers. Rivals are entering the mobile browser space to compete with Apple. Although Apple’s gadgets are trendy, their hardware will eventually become irrelevant.” 29 December 2009
  • “Apple has raised the bar on what’s normal, but other phones are easily narrowing the difference because web technology is easier to program.” 7 May 2010
  • “If a price war breaks out in Android phones, Samsung wins hands down.” 15 Feb 2012

To which we can add, from Zabitsky’s Jan. 25 note:

  • “Content is king again. It is available everywhere – not just from Apple. If we learn one thing from Netflix’s fall from grace, it is that aggregating content is no longer a viable business model.”
  • “Speaking of open ecosystems, what will Apple do when carriers introduce network-based video calling?”
  • “We maintain our Sell Short rating on Apple. The internet is the great equalizer. It saved Apple during the rise of the wired broadband internet. It will level the playing field for other vendors with the rise of the true mobile broadband internet.”

We asked Zabitsky if he was serious about his $270 price target and his “sell short” rating, and he was kind enough to reply:

“To be clear,” he wrote, “shorting is for professionals. Individuals should just be asking themselves if Apple is as invincible as they think.

“My targets are based upon my expectations for the business over a two year time frame. They are not based upon the current share price. In 2007, my targets were all well below the share prices, in late February 2009, my targets were all far above the share prices.

“The difference between me and my competitors is that I had a successful buy-side career. I have also had 20 years of experience talking to high tech people who are far smarter than I am. Futhermore, I do not have a trading desk breathing down my neck.”

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