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David Rolfe Comments on Apple - Jul 13, 2016

Apple (NASDAQ:AAPL) has been a significant underperformer not only during the recent second quarter (-11.8%), but also for nearly a year now. The stock has fallen about - 28% on an absolute basis, from its high set back on July 20, 2015. This is the second time that the stock has been put through the wringer since late 2012 on fears of “peak” iPhone growth and the concomitant lack of innovation out of the skunk works in Cupertino. Given the surge of sales of the iPhone 6 in 2015 (pent up demand for a larger iPhone, plus significant demand from China), we are not surprised by the weaker year-over-year earnings comparisons.

The Apple stock advance-and-decline narrative has been pretty straightforward over the past half-dozen years. Given the consented narrative that Apple is “The iPhone Company” – and nothing but the iPhone – when forward analyst estimates of iPhone sales increase, the stock typically advances. When estimates are being cut, well, the stock typically declines, also. Mr. Market really is that binary on Apple’s stock price movements. We would argue, too, that Mr. Market is quite obtuse when it comes to the totality of Apple. Everything else that a rational investor would consider in accessing Apple as an investment is literally put in a vacuum when it comes to the stock. Valuation seems to matter not a wit. By any traditional valuation measure, both absolute and relative to other technology hardware companies, Apple’s stock, in our view, has long been cheap – but it gets cheaper still on estimate cuts. In fact, we would argue that Apple’s stock is currently valued (6.5X FCF ex-cash)2 as if to assume that the Company’s business prospects are little better than a coal mine in 10-year run-off mode.

Here are a few elements of the superiority – and we would argue, rarity – of the Company’s business model via their platform trifecta of hardware, software and services that should matter to investors: iPhone user base estimated at +450 million. Smartphone industry gross profit take of approximately 95%. An installed ecosystem base of over +1 billion sticky users. 13 million active App Store developers. 130 billion downloaded Apps. Relatedly, software services gross revenue business is at an annuity-like run-rate of $40 billion – with profit margins greater than Company average. Company operating margins of 30%. Connected software platforms that include iOS, MacOS and Watch OS. The Company’s near fanatic commitment to user privacy. Apple Watch unit sales of 11-13 million since launch. Over the past four calendar years the Company has generated nearly $216 billion in free cash flow, including $55 billion over the past four quarters. $250 billion in balance sheet liquidity. Tens of billions of stock buybacks, in our view, below intrinsic value.

It could be argued that Apple’s only significant competitor is itself. Sure, Android vendors such as Samsung, Huawei, Oppo, and Xiaomi, are competitors in that each does sell high-end smartphones, particularly to first-time smartphone buyers.

However, it's also the case that once one experiences the differentiated nature of a true high-end smartphone, many of those Android customers do find their way to Apple for a significantly better user ecosystem. At this juncture, the consensus on Apple is that the iPhone 7 will be a boring upgrade and thus a flop. Again, the current valuation of the stock implies that Apple is once again a permanently impaired growth company. Given that Apple is our second largest position, we certainly don’t share such dire views.

From David Rolfe (TradesPortfolio)'s second quarter 2016 Wedgewood Partners Client Letter