"It's not real, you know, the fame thing."- Anna Scott (Notting Hill)
The hardest thing for the beleaguered Apple investor to wrap their head around is the fact that Apple exists on a schizophrenic plane like no other.
On the one hand, there is 'THE STOCK' -- i.e., the broken stock price.
It rests in the same Bargain Bin as Dell Computer, a company selling undifferentiated offerings in a commoditized segment that quite literally shrinks by the day.
On the other, there is 'THE REAL COMPANY,' an innovating, selling, marketing, leverage and cash-generating machine that has now dropped almost $100 billion dollars in revenues and $22 billion dollars of profits in just the first two quarters of Apple's fiscal year.
That this engine has fattened the company's coffers to the tune of $145 billion dollars (another $12.5 billion added this quarter) does not satisfy.
That this harvest comes from six different multi-billion dollar product lines (iPhone, iPad, Mac, iPad, iTunes & Services, Accessories) manages little more than an acknowledging shrug.
That the company has repeatedly proven its ability to create massive new markets in a quasi-predictable, highly-levered fashion (now known simply as the iOS platform), yields but a yawn.
"Where's my divvy," bitch the disappointed investors, seemingly ignorant to the fact that not only have spirtual peers, Google and Amazon, never offered up a dividend, but they've never even let the topic so much as brush the top of the table.
"Apple has an identity crisis," utter the dumbest of the dumb media, blind to the power of Apple's unique position in the market as an integrated hardware, software, services, media, tools and marketplace solution provider.
Ever clear on their North Star - i.e., delivering great consumer experiences that change people's lives - Apple has neither changed their identity, nor lost their focus, as evidenced by the best customer satisfaction and customer loyalty ratings, and consistently, the industry's highest profit margins.
Know this. If it was even remotely easy to approximate the 'Apple Way,' we'd be talking about the multiple multi-billion dollar product lines that Apple's competitors have created; we'd be talking about the breakout success of the Apple Retail Store copycats; and we'd be talking about the multitudes of developer success stories that have dropped out of the Google, RIM or Microsoft mobile ecosystems.
We aren't, and it's not (easy).
It's with this fundamental schism between THE REAL COMPANY and The STOCK that I attempted to make sense of the takeaways from Apple's earnings call.
There are four conclusions that stood out to me:
- Tim Cook wants Apple to be Liked by Investors in a way that Steve Jobs never did: In the call, Cook had an almost apologetic tone with respect to how Apple has failed to beat the guidance, growth and margins expected by analysts and media. In increasing the dividend and upping buybacks, the tone was more akin to "we're trying harder" than "get on the bus or get left in the dust." By contrast, even when Apple's stock was cratering into the $80's following the crush of the 2008 financial crisis, Jobs embodied a healthy irritation for the capriciousness of investors, and the ignorance of many analysts and the media. The truth here is that no good deed goes unpunished, and far from appreciating Apple's olive branch to investors, the narrative is likely to be spun as Cook's Apple is trying to buy time, and is in defensive mode. Me personally, I wanted a bit more "F-U," and a bit less, "we're sorry."
- Margins will Remain Contracted for the Foreseeable Future: If there are two product-related narratives that stood out for me, they are: 1) iPad mini unleashed an absolute torrent of first-time tablet device buyers (personally, it's their best tablet device), and if the sacrifice is lower margins (relative to the larger iPad), it's worth the trade-off. If the tablet is the replacement device for many a 'job' that users previously hired PCs for -- as I believe it is -- then any way that Apple can capture this market share is a zero-sum type of win that they must secure. Here, Cook and Apple CFO Peter Oppenheimer were quite clear that Apple executed a similar strategy in winning the media player market with iPod, so what's past is prologue; and 2) iPhone 4/4S is the smartphone device that Apple is counting on to capture market share outside of the US with first-time smartphone buyers. Unsurprisingly, these devices may be where the highest volume comes from on iPhone (especially, until the next iPhone comes out), eroding margins in the process. The alternative is to give that ground to Android based devices, a calculus between market share, revenue, user experience and the bottom line that the company has repeatedly shown the acumen to manage through. Honestly, I am not even remotely concerned that they will find the right balance here.
- The New Product Pipeline will Likely Remain Dry until Fall at the earliest: Given the extreme secrecy by which the company launches new products, and manages expectations around same, Cook spoke with a metaphorical bull-horn in flatly stating that new product **categories** and new services are not expected until this Fall and throughout 2014. Needless to say, the absence of new products combined with the absence of seasonal catalysts, explains why Apple's outlook for Q3 was a flat quarter, and why the quarter behind that may not be much better.
- iOS Usage Rates are Staggering in their Differential relative to Competing Platforms: If the downside of the current Apple story is absence of true catalysts to carry it aloft to new heights, the upside is that iOS stands alone in generating 75 cents of every dollar of ecosystem commerce in the mobile universe. Simply put, Apple is paying developers $1 billion dollars in revenue share every quarter, iTunes is on a $16 billion dollar run rate, and the actual usage of these devices in terms of web traffic is of a different degree than the competition. Keep that in mind next time Google touts generic Android unit count numbers. Again, that's not to say that there aren't clear scenarios where Apple gets attacked on the margins, but their core differentators, and the depth of engagement and loyalty with users is unlikely to be threatened any time soon. That's the bottom line.
So, netting it out, should you Buy, Sell, or Do Nothing? And what will Apple stock do in the intervening months ahead?
This, unfortunately is a riddle without a clear answer, a stark reminder of the famous quote that the market can stay irrational far longer than most investors can remain solvent.