Customers around the world are breathlessly awaiting the much-ballyhooed arrival of Apple Inc.’s next generation of its wildly popular iPhone mobile device -- the iPhone 5.
Analysts are widely expecting the iPhone 5 to deliver record-shattering sales numbers, thereby adding even more luster to a much-lauded company that will soon become the biggest corporation on the planet.
However, given the recent sudden resignation of visionary chief executive Steve Jobs and the emergence of Samsung as a dominant player in the SmartPhone market, one must wonder if perhaps too much is being expected of Apple’s next edition of iPhone?
Might sales be disappointing, that is, somewhat less than stupendous? And in that event, could investors start to fret over Apple’s Jobs-less future?
For the moment, tech analysts and other experts don’t seem to be the least bit concerned -- they are almost universally expecting the iPhone 5 to be a blockbuster.
Mike Abramsky, an analyst at RBC Capital Markets, recently told his clients that two-thirds (about 66 percent) of existing iPhone users were very/somewhat likely to buy the iPhone 5. He described such demand as unprecedented,” suggesting the product is guaranteed to be hugely successful.
Apple is already the largest individual vendor of SmartPhones. According to market researcher Canalys, the company sold 20.3 million units of the iPhone in the second quarter of 2011, out of a total market volume of 107.7 million units – representing an approximate 19 percent global market share.
Boosted by the impending iPhone 5 release, Apple’s share of the global Smartphone market is expected to reach 22 percent next year.
However, SmartPhones that use Google’s Android OS mobile device operating system -- which are sold by various companies, including Samsung, HTC Corp., LG Corp., Motorola, Sony Ericsson, ZTE Corp., and Huawei Technologies Co. Ltd. -- actually dominate the global Smartphone market, with about a 48 percent share as of the second quarter of 2011.
Apple, which does not share its mobile operating system with other firms, is expected to sell 86 million iPhones in 2011, according to Credit Suisse. In 2012, it anticipates Apple will sell another 135 million units – an extraordinary 57 percent increase in just one year.
“The iPhone has been a phenomenal success story for Apple and a watershed product for the market,’ said Canalys’ principal analyst Chris Jones. “It’s an impressive success story, given that Apple has only been in the SmartPhone market for four years. With the next-generation iPhone anticipated in [the third quarter], it’s likely that Apple’s position will grow even stronger in the second half of the year.”
SmartPhone sales are also taking an ever-expanding portion of Apple’s overall sales profile. In 2009, about 30 percent of the company’s total revenues came from iPhone sales ($13-billion out of $43-billion). In 2010, that weighting rose to 39 percent. This year, iPhone sales are expected to generate 44 percent of the company’s estimated $106-billion in total revenues.
Erick Maronak, portfolio manager of the Large Cap Growth Fund at Victory Capital Management -- who includes Apple among his largest holdings -- believes the company is an inexorable force in the global marketplace.
“In the SmartPhone market, Apple and Samsung are the rising dominant players,” he said. “Nokia and Research-in-Motion are in serious decline and in danger of being completely displaced in this market.”
Maronak describes Apple as a “vertically-integrated dynamo,” with superb gross margin figures.
Indeed, in the recent quarter, Apple’s gross profit margin amounted to an astounding 41.7 percent, versus 39.1 percent a year earlier. Maronak indicated that rival tech companies like RIMM and Nokia feature lower margins of 30 percent or so.
Maronak is also not worried about the end of Steve Jobs’ reign as Apple’s king.
“Steve Jobs was clearly the front-man at Apple and had veto rights on any design issues and he was highly innovative,” he said.
“However, [the new chief executive] Tim Cook should not be dismissed. Keep in mind, that when Jobs had to take a medical leave of absence earlier this year, Cook filled in for him admirably, without any changes in operations or a decrease in quality.”
As hard as it might be to believe, Apple may only be getting started -- there is, after all, the huge market of China yet to conquer.
In July, the company’s sales in China amounted to about $3.8 billion, a six-fold leap from the year-ago period. But that’s just peanuts compared to the kind of revenues Apple could generate when they expand their presence in the vast and populous country.
Apple said it plans to open 30 stores in the third quarter in China, as well as Hong Kong.
Cook himself commented at the time: “China was very key to our results. We’re just scratching the surface. There is an incredible opportunity for Apple there.”
Maronak noted that while many other mature Western companies have already entered the Chinese market to compensate for tepid growth in North America and Europe, Apple is only beginning to make a footprint there.
“The potential upside in China is enormous,” he noted.
Ron Weiner, the president and chief executive officer of RDM Financial Group in Westport, Conn., indicated that Apple could be looked at as an investment/demography play on the huge new middle class in countries like China and India.
“Not only has Apple consistently delivered high-quality and innovative products, but it hasn’t even begun to expand its operations in China and some other emerging markets,” he said.
“Apple is a long-term, solid growth story. Even in the unlikely event that iPhone 5 doesn’t generate the kinds of sales expected of it, the stock might endure some brief hiccups, but overall, the company has a brilliant future. It’s in the catbird seat.”
There is, however, a very odd element to Apple’s grandiose success – why is its stock so cheap?
Apple shares currently trade at a 12-month forward P/E of a little more than 12 – extremely moderate for a company that routinely smashes Wall Street’s earnings forecasts, has no debt on the books, and boasts a war chest of something like $71-billion in cash.
In comparison, LinkedIn Corp. (Nasdaq: LNKD), which recently conducted its initial public offering, trades at a forward P/E of almost 500.
“Apple is a veritable cash machine and I am puzzled as to why the stock remains so undervalued,” Maronak said. “Perhaps some investors feel that the company has already gotten so big, that it can’t get any bigger.”
Weiner noted that Apple’s modest valuation may simply reflect a weak environment for equities generally.
He noted that companies like Ford Motor (NYSE: F) and General Motors (NYSE: GM) are trading at forward 12-month P/E’s of between 5 and 6. Even tech company Siemens AG (NYSE: SI) only trades at about 8.9x.
In some ways, Apple might become victimized by its own success – yet, such a thing is unlikely to happen for many years.
In a worst-case scenario, Maronak suggested, once Apple’s growth starts to slow down, it will not be an overnight event.
“Well-managed, high-growth companies don’t implode instantaneously,” he said. “Look at Cisco Systems. Their eventual stagnation was the culmination of about five straight years of bad decisions.”
Apple, he counters, has scarcely made any poor decisions – thereby, likely giving the company a much longer life span.