Why Apple is smarter than the stock market

September 10, 2015, 8:47 PM UTC
Apple CEO Tim Cook introduces the new iPad Pro during an Apple media event in San Francisco, California
Apple CEO Tim Cook introduces the new iPad Pro during an Apple media event in San Francisco, California, September 9, 2015. Reuters/Beck Diefenbach - RTSCOY
Photograph by Beck Diefenbach — Reuters

Apple’s shares continued to underperform on Thursday, despite analysts’ reasonably relatively positive reviews for products that the tech giant unveiled on Wednesday. Apple’s stock is hovering around the $112 per share mark even during upticks – a far cry from the $130 per share range it traded at for most of the first half of 2015 or its 52-Week High of $134.54. Nothing seems to get the stock back up anymore, even a new iPhone.

This isn’t unusual, however, if you look at Apple’s history. On past product launches, Apple (AAPL) saw modest run-ups in its stock right before the events, followed by a decline right after as analysts inevitably felt disappointed due to inflated expectations and took time to absorb the new offerings. This week’s event seemed to follow the same pattern, more or less.

This should actually help Apple, whose stock has skyrocketed recently due to extreme hype, to keep its price, and Wall Street expectations for the future, in rational territory. That in turn will make it easier for the company to beat market estimates at the end of this year if its latest devices do well, as happened with the iPhone 6 during the last quarter of 2014. In that instance, even though expectations were still high, Apple’s performance was significantly higher. Managing expectations will also help Apple circumvent the trap it fell into for the iPhone 5s, when sales couldn’t match Wall Street euphoria and hurt its shares.

As proof that there is currently a mismatch between Apple’s likely performance and its market value, many leading analysts have already weighed in with aggressive price targets for the company ranging as high as $175 per share.

Think of it as a spring being pulled back. The less investors expect from Apple, the more likely they are to be positively surprised when the company delivers strong sales on its latest products, particularly the iPhone, and to buy more stock. By contrast, a bull market for Apple now would have nowhere to go but down, as we have seen in the last few months. Hype has long been one of Apple’s best friends but can also be its worst enemy when it veers too far from reality.

Apple’s brilliance is in focusing on its products, as it did on Wednesday, and letting the market recognize the value in its own sweet time. Other than a brief statement that Apple CEO Tim Cook gave last month to allay fears about declining sales in China, Apple has done little to artificially prop up its stock. That’s the hallmark of a mature corporation that is confident about the usefulness and appeal of its products and doesn’t have to kowtow to market whims in order to succeed.

As I pointed out in an earlier article, Apple has good reason to be confident since its global market share of smartphones is actually increasing and the evolution of wireless plans in the U.S. could encourage more users to upgrade to new phones every year. Everything else aside, that forms the bedrock of Apple’s business model and its earnings prospects; and at a relatively modest 12 times price-to-2015-earnings ratio (especially in tech), it could be argued that the stock is a bargain.

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The other reason that a low stock price actually helps Apple is because of its $200 billion share buyback program. A cheaper stock enables the company to buy back more of its shares and can provide an even bigger boost to earnings per share than normal. That would propel Apple’s stock up eventually but not before the company reaps the benefit of having made its investors very happy, and reaffirms its reputation as a valuable addition to portfolios.

To be sure, the company is facing challenges with Apple Music and Apple Pay, which have failed to gain traction the way the company hoped they would, but those things don’t form the core of Apple or its valuation. Not to mention that vast improvements to the iPhone, Apple TV, the Apple Watch, and the iPad could more than make up for any underperforming business lines.

So even as some market watchers continue to express pessimism about Apple, it’s more likely that the company that has delivered so many pioneering products over the years, whose hits have outnumbered its misses, and which has outsmarted most of its tech rivals, may also be smarter than the market.

S. Kumar is a tech and business commentator. He has worked in technology, media, and telecom investment banking. He does not own shares of Apple.

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