Warren Buffett’s decision to invest a large sum in Apple (AAPL) in recent quarters was so surprising because he once regarded tech companies to be outside his so-called “circle of competence.” Then six years ago he started buying IBM (IBM) shares, which only served to confirm that the legendary investor indeed should probably steer clear of the sector and focus on the areas of the economy he knows best.
In recent days we have learned that Buffett has begun selling off his IBM position (about 1/3 thus far), but his new tech favorite is clearly Apple, which he has been accumulating so much that it now represents his second largest single stock investment in dollar terms behind Wells Fargo (WFC).
His timing with Apple appears to have been quite good, although I suspect that is more due to luck than anything. For the last year or so, Apple bulls (other than Buffett) have been touting the idea that the company is not actually a hardware company, but rather a software and services company with valuable recurring revenue. It should follow, they say, that Apple stock deserves a much higher earnings multiple than it traditionally has received (below the S&P 500 due to the perceived fickle nature of technology products, especially on the hardware side of the business).
I am not convinced that this argument makes sense, at least yet. Every quarter we hear investors tripping over themselves about Apple’s service revenue growth, and yet whenever I look at the numbers I still see a hardware company. Consider the first half of Apple’s current fiscal year (which ends September 30th). Service revenue made up 11% of Apple’s total sales, versus 67% for the iPhone, 10% for the Mac, 7% for the iPad, and 5% everything else. Clearly, Apple is not a software company.
Now I know that services have higher margins, so although they represent 11% of sales, they contribute more than that to profits, which is a good thing. But in order for software and services to really become a large contributor to Apple’s bottom line, the revenue contribution has to rise materially, in my view. And that is where I think the “Apple is a services juggernaut” thesis gets shaky.
Over the last six months, services made up 11% of total revenue. Okay, so clearly that number must be accelerating pretty quickly given how bullish certain shareholders are about Apple’s earnings multiple expansion potential, right? Well, in fiscal 2016 the figure was also 11%. In fiscal 2014 it was 10%. In fiscal 2013 it was 9%. Services thus far are not growing much faster than hardware, which actually makes sense when you think about the Apple ecosystem.
If you want more people to buy the services, they have to buy the hardware first. So maybe the two go hand in hand. Put another way, if many iPhone owners have not subscribed to Apple’s services yet, why would they suddenly begin to adopt them at higher rates in the future? At least, that is the argument for why services might not become 20 or 30% of sales over the next few years.
Interestingly, since Buffett started buying more Apple, the earnings multiple has increased. Much of that likely has to do with the prospect for corporate tax reform and the potential for the company to repatriate their large cash hoard ($30 per share net of debt) back home at a low tax rate, but some probably is linked to the idea that services are about to explode to the upside. Color me skeptical on that front.
Year-to-date Apple shares have rallied from ~$116 to ~$152 each. On a free cash flow basis, the multiple on fiscal 2016 results has risen from 12x to nearly 16x. As a holder of the stock, I am certainly happy about that, but I wonder how much more room the multiple has to rise. And will it turn back the other way if services growth disappoints or if tax reform is less aggressive than hoped? Perhaps.
If that happens, the stock price could very much depend more on Apple’s future product lineup than anything. On that front, I am nervous about the company. In recent months I have come to the conclusion that Amazon (AMZN) might be the “new Apple” in terms of tech innovation. Not too long ago it was Apple that would be first to market (the iPad, the iPhone, etc), and then everyone else would copy them (and fail). Lately it seems that Amazon has taken over that role and Google (GOOG), Microsoft (MSFT), and Apple then copy them.
I am thinking about Amazon Echo, which Google quickly copied and rumors are that Apple is not far behind in doing the same. With Amazon’s announcement this week about Echo Show I had the same thought. Dash buttons – same thing. Drone delivery – same thing. Apple is reportedly funding original TV shows and movies now (years behind the curve). The Apple Watch wasn’t first to market, etc. Oh, and the attempt to build an electric car in Cupertino? The perfect example of mimicry.
If that is the case, then Apple’s hardware growth, which has been halted, may be difficult to accelerate. And if services need to pick up the slack, there is a lot of work left there as they seem to be stuck as a percentage of total sales.
While I am not bearish on Apple as an investment – their ability to generate cash remains more than formidable – with the recent earnings multiple expansion I am starting to think about where future upside will come from. If the most exuberant bulls are right and the stock can garner a multiple a la Coca Cola (KO) or McDonalds (MCD) (20-25x earnings), that is definitely the answer. I am just not sure sure that makes sense, at this point anyway.
Full Disclosure: Long shares of Apple and Amazon at the time of writing, but positions may change at any time