Apple: Fundamentally Strong, Lot More Downside Risk (NASDAQ:AAPL)


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Article Thesis

Apple (NASDAQ:AAPL) is a fundamentally strong company, but its growth is not outrageously high. At the same time, shares trade well above the historical norm, which makes its buybacks less effective and which results in multiple compression risk. Over the last couple of months, Apple has already seen its shares pull back considerably. Depending on where rates are headed, shares could fall further, however.

Apple Has A Strong Business, But Not Too Much Growth

Looking at Apple’s fundamentals, we can say that this is clearly a strong company. Not only does Apple have a great balance sheet with ample cash resources, but Apple also operates with attractive margins and returns on capital.

During the last four quarters, Apple’s net margin was 26%. That does not only mean that Apple generates a hefty amount of profit for every additional sale it makes, but Apple’s margins also are reducing risks in times of inflation. Some companies have already seen their margins compress due to the current high-inflation environment. That is way more dangerous for companies with low margins, as a 200-basis point margin hit would cut profits in half for a company with a 4% net margin. Apple, in the same scenario, would see its profits decline by less than 10%, which means that high-margin businesses such as Apple are lower-risk investments in times such as these.

A high-quality company isn’t necessarily a high-growth company, however. In Apple’s case, the enormous baseline means that growing the business further is far from easy. A company that generates annual revenue of close to $400 billion needs to add billions of dollars in revenue every year just for a paltry 1% revenue growth rate. If the company wants a 5% growth rate, which is solid but far from spectacular, $20 billion in additional sales during a single year are required. Price increases for its hardware products such as the iPhone, iPad, Mac, etc. help drive some revenue growth in the long run, but volume growth is not too much of a tailwind. After all, most people that want a smartphone or a tablet already have one and replacing existing ones does not lead to long-term volume growth. Apple’s services business has generated above-average growth in recent years, but that will likely not be enough to lead to great business growth in the long run. After all, even when Apple rolls out new services over time that add a billion in revenue or two, that barely moves the needle for a $400 billion-a-year giant.

Not too surprisingly, Apple’s forecasted revenue growth is thus not overly strong:

AAPL revenue growth forecast

AAPL revenue growth forecast (Source: Seeking Alpha)

Growth during the current year is forecasted at a little less than 8%, partially made possible thanks to a still somewhat easy comparison to the pandemic-impacted quarters last year. Beyond the current year, growth is forecasted to decelerate meaningfully, however, to just 5% in 2023 and 4% in 2024-2025.

Earnings per share growth is not only coming from revenue growth, of course. Margin expansion can boost earnings further, but due to Apple’s already very high margins and due to inflationary pressures in all kinds of products and commodities, it seems doubtful whether Apple will be able to boost its margins dramatically from the already very elevated level.

Last but not least, buybacks can result in earnings per share growing faster than the company’s overall net profits. That has been the case for Apple for many years, and it will likely hold true in the future as well. Unfortunately, Apple’s buybacks have become a lot less efficient over time. Between May 2013 and May 2020, Apple’s share count declined by 32%, which pencils out to a 5.4% annual reduction rate (CAGR). Over the last two years, however, Apple has only reduced its share count by 4.8%:

Data by YCharts

The annual share count reduction pace in that time frame was thus just 2.4%, or significantly less than half the buyback pace seen over the previous seven years. That is not the result of a reduction in Apple’s absolute buyback spending. Instead, Apple’s shares have become way more expensive than they used to be over the last decade, which has made buybacks less efficient – naturally, buying back shares when they are cheap is more impactful than buying back shares when they are expensive.

Since Apple’s shares are still very pricey when compared to the historical norm, we can expect that Apple’s buybacks will continue to lack behind the historic average in relative terms. The earnings per share growth tailwinds from buybacks should thus continue to underwhelm going forward, compared to the way more pronounced buyback impact we have seen in prior years when Apple was able to scoop up shares at a way lower valuation.

Due to the baseline effect/law of large numbers that makes maintaining a lot of business growth difficult, and due to the fact that smartphones, PCs, and so on aren’t really a growth industry, combined with a weak impact from buybacks, Apple is thus not expected to grow its earnings per share very much going forward. I still do expect that Apple will generate a solid earnings per share growth pace in the long run, but not an exciting one.

Data by YCharts

Over the last decade, Apple has grown its earnings per share by a huge 305%. That pencils out to an annual earnings per share growth rate of 15.0%. Going forward, the analyst community is predicting earnings per share growth that is roughly half as high:

AAPL EPS growth forecast

AAPL EPS growth forecast (Source: Seeking Alpha)

We see expected EPS growth of 10% this year, while earnings per share growth is forecasted to decelerate to as low as 4% in the years beyond 2022. Overall, earnings per share are forecasted to rise by just 80% over the coming nine years, while Apple roughly quadrupled its EPS over the last ten years. Clearly, growth in the coming years will likely be way lower than it used to be in the past. That is not necessarily a disaster. In fact, growth deceleration over time has to be expected as companies mature eventually. The lower future growth should be reflected in the company’s valuation, however, and that does not seem to be the case at all.

AAPL Stock: Expensive By Historical Standards

Right now, Apple is trading for $141 per share, which is down by 23% from the 52-week high. But that has by far not made Apple into a cheap stock:

Data by YCharts

In the above chart, we see that Apple is now trading for 23x forward net profits, while the 10-year median earnings multiple is 16.4. In other words, Apple is still trading at a 40% premium compared to how shares were valued, on average, in the past. Looking at the company’s enterprise value to EBITDA multiple, which accounts for changes in net cash due to using EV, the premium versus the historical valuation is even more pronounced. At a 19x forward EV/EBITDA multiple, Apple is trading at a premium of almost 80% compared to the 10-year median EV/EBITDA ratio of 10.6.

We can thus summarize that Apple’s current valuation is still way higher than it was, on average, over the last decade – despite the 20%+ share price decline since the company peaked earlier this year. At the same time, Apple’s expected revenue and earnings per share growth rate for the coming years is way lower than the growth the company has delivered over the last decade. A way higher valuation for a company that will be delivering way less growth in the coming years does not seem like an attractive investment proposal to me.

Another way to look at Apple’s valuation is a comparison between its earnings yield and the US Treasury yield:

Data by YCharts

We see that Apple’s earnings yield is currently 1.1% higher than the 10-year treasury rate. Historically, the risk premium has been much larger, often around 3%, but even higher at times. We can thus say that, relative to risk-free investments (treasuries), Apple has become more expensive over the last couple of years, as its spread has dwindled. That does not necessarily mean that Treasuries are a better investment. But it seems clear that Apple has been getting way more expensive in recent years, as investors bid up its shares further and further, pushing the yield spread versus risk-free investments lower and lower.

What It Means

The combination of these factors means that Apple could have considerably more downside potential. The company, which will most likely not grow as much in the future as it did in the past, could see its shares fall by another 30%, and it would still not be cheap by historical standards. Instead, Apple would be trading perfectly in line with its 10-year median earnings multiple of 16 in that scenario. Apple’s shares are not as overvalued as they were when they traded at $160, $170, or even higher. But even at $141, AAPL is still very clearly on the expensive side by historical standards. With interest rates rising, which is a clear negative for equity valuations, Apple has considerably more downside risk. That will not necessarily materialize, but investors should at least know that buying Apple at $141, and at an earnings multiple well above 20 is far from a value pick. Apple was a great value pick when it traded at earnings multiples of 10-15 years ago. But today, even following a sizeable downturn in recent months, AAPL is still pricey.

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