Apple Shares Continue to Ride iPod Success

The momentum investors on Wall Street have gotten ahold of Apple Computer (AAPL) and they most likely won’t be letting go anytime soon. After today’s $6 jump on a very bullish analyst report, AAPL shares have tripled in the past year from under $20 to more than $60 each. We can argue whether the stock looks pricey or not (many would say it does with $1.30 in estimated earnings per share for fiscal 2005, but don’t forget the $14 in cash and lack of debt), but investors want a piece of the reinvigorated company, whose iPod MP3 player is selling like crazy, and are willing to pay up for it.

Today, the Apple analyst with Piper Jaffray raised his price target to $100, with the stock trading in the mid-fifties. Looking simply at a price-to-earnings ratio, it’s hard to justify that price, but Piper has a 2006 EPS estimate of $2.30, ahead of the current consensus of $1.60 per share. Given the iPod’s ability to boost Apple’s profit margins, that bullish forecast could very well play out. The $100 target comes from the analyst’s estimated p/e ratio on those earnings of 44x. If one is to critique this target price objective, taking issue with the 44 multiple assumption hardly seems irrational, it seems very high. Little doubt though, that profit forecasts for Apple will turn out to be too modest.

More on Satellite Radio…

Sirius (SIRI) shares are up 20% after-hours after the company announced that Mel Karmazin, former head of Viacom, will become CEO. Increase in market cap due this development? $1 billion. Wow. Can one man really be worth that much money? Of course not, but investors are jumping on the bandwagon anyway. I just heard a projection that satellite radio will have 30 million subscribers by 2010. Once again, we can use this to try and justify a $14-$15 billion market value for SIRI and XMSR. With 30 million subs paying $10 per month, you get industry revenue of $3.6 billion. A 10% profit margin gets you net income of $360 million. So, these stocks trade at about 40 times 2010 earnings, if these assumptions prove accurate.

Investors Tuning In to Satellite Radio

The market is down today, but the satellite radio sector continues its ascent. XM Satellite (XMSR) and Sirius (SIRI) are seeing tremendous interest, mostly from retail investors looking to cash in on “the next big thing.” XM and Sirius today sport a combined market value of $13.5 billion, despite having never reported a single dollar in profit. Clearly, investors are betting on future earnings with this sector, but is there enough profit potential to justify the satellite radio market’s value at $13.5 billion today?

As usual, numbers can help us give color to the situation. While they can’t predict how the satellite market will play out over time, we can get a good idea of what the “upside” really is. According to the Department of Transportation, there are 200 million vehicles in the U.S. We’ll ignore the international markets for now, given that neither XM nor Sirius has hinted it will try and tackle those as of yet, probably for good reason. Even though prices of technology products and services tend to decline over time, we’ll assume that the $10 per month subscription fee will remain constant.

So, it’s relatively easy to determine the total market potential. If each and every car in the U.S. was equipped with a satellite radio, the industry would garner $24 billion in annual sales. Profit margins are tough to guess, especially when XM and Sirius are paying hundreds of millions of dollars to secure their content such as Howard Stern, Major League Baseball, and the National Football League. Leading radio companies such as Clear Channel and Cumulus Media net about an 8 percent margin, so we’ll use that as a guide to determine the total market’s annual profit potential: $1.9 billion.

These numbers are important because many investors who are buying these stocks today are not looking at the numbers behind the stocks, namely the extreme valuations already built into the share prices. Paying $13.5 billion today, for profit potential of $1.9 billion annually, seems excessive given that this assumption requires one to believe that every car, truck, and SUV in the country will eventually have a satellite radio. After all, only about 50% of households own computers and only 70% have cable television.

If we were to assume that in 10 years, half of all vehicles will have a satellite radio, the market will earn less than $1 billion in profit. So, investors today are paying 14x projected 2014 earnings. Clearly, a lot of people see this as a bargain. Only time will tell.

History Suggests Strong Market in 2005

If you’re a numbers person, a history buff, and an investor, you will most likely find the following numbers very bullish for the coming year on Wall Street. Now, I’ll be the first to point out that I really don’t think the numbers below will really have an effect on the stock market’s direction next year. But, they are interesting and should, at the very least, peak one’s curiosity as to whether or not it is simply a coincidence that years ending in a “5” have traditionally been great for investors.

Most of us know that the historical average for stock market returns has been about 10 percent per year. Interestingly, since the Dow Jones Industrial Average was created (1897 by Charles Dow), there has never been a year ending in the number “5” in which the Dow lost value. In fact, no such year has ever failed to beat the historical average of a 10 percent gain. In fact, these years have come and gone 10 times and the Dow has averaged a gain of 34.6 percent. I have not taken the time to investigate why this may be the case, but let’s hope the trend continues. Here are the numbers for the Dow:

1905: 38.2%

1915: 81.7%

1925: 30.0%

1935: 38.5%

1945: 26.7%

1955: 20.8%

1965: 10.9%

1975: 38.3%

1985: 27.7%

1995: 33.5%

2005: ???

10-Year Average: 34.6%

Sleepless in Seattle

On their quarterly conference call earlier this week, Starbucks (SBUX) management indicated they envision room for 30,000 of their stores worldwide. Given that after years of rapid expansion they have yet to even reach 9,000, we can assume sleep is not something the Seattle-based premium coffee chain focuses too much on.

The stock has been on fire, having doubled in price over the last year to a recent $55 per share. Is it too late to get in? Well, it depends on your personal investment philosophy. Momentum investors love to see stocks like Starbucks defy gravity, and there is no doubt they have contributed greatly to its meteoric ascent lately. The question is, what can investors expect in the future?

I can’t recall a time Starbucks has been this richly priced. The p/e has actually risen throughout this year, despite the fact that multiples usually contract when larger companies get big enough that growth will inevitably have to slow. Fiscal 2005 earnings are expected to rise another 20% to about $1.14 per share, giving SBUX a forward p/e of 48. Much like one of their hot chocolates, the shares seem very, very rich.

Starbucks bulls can surely explain why the company deserves such a valuation. Among them, a 20% growth rate, the ability to charge $4 for something that one can buy somewhere else for $1 even though it is not four times as tasty (some may disagree), and the list goes on. The S&P 500 does trade at about two times its growth rate, so perhaps one can justify a 40 p/e for Starbucks stock. Given the company’s 30,000 store goal, it’s clear that the growth story is not going to end anytime soon.

The question remains, how long can the company maintain its 20% annual growth rate? And importantly for investors, what happens to the stock’s 48 forward p/e when growth slows to 15 percent, and then to 10 percent? That multiple clearly has little room to rise, and a significant way to fall at some point in the future. The stock’s upward move has actually accelerated over the last year or so, as momentum investors have chased the stock. This despite the fact that as the company continues to grow, it will become harder and harder to maintain its high level of growth.

If you have a sizable capital gain in Starbucks stock, perhaps it would be prudent to take some of it off the table. Here is one statistic to end with. Assume SBUX is able to maintain its 20% earnings growth rate for the next three years, through 2007, and as a result, posts 2007 earnings of $1.64 per share. If the stock trades at a 40 p/e at that time, then shares will fetch about $65 each. This would imply a return to investors of 6 percent per year between now and 2007. Hardly breathtaking, but surely a possible scenario.

Another Blown Analyst Call

The best performing equity group since President Bush won reelection last week has been the HMO sector. Stocks like United Health (UNH), Wellpoint (WLP), Anthem (ATH), and Aetna (AET) have been on fire. PacifiCare (PHS), a second-tier player and long-time Peridot holding, has also rallied, from a $34 close on election day to $44 as of yesterday. This morning, Banc of America Securities finally decided to cave and upgrade the stock from “sell” to “neutral.” The firm raised its price target on PHS shares from $25 (it’s 52-week low) to $44 (it’s current price). The report also pointed out, for those of us who are less than perceptive, that the “sell” rating had “not been a good call.”

As happens too often on Wall Street, we have another case of an analyst being completed wrong and having to throw in the towel and admit defeat. Why would anyone follow B of A’s advice on PacifiCare when they have been dead wrong on the stock for as long as the eye can see?

Google Pullback Presents Opportunity

Didn’t get any shares of the Google (GOOG) IPO? You’re not alone. Like the majority of buy side firms, Peridot avoided bidding in the Google dutch auction after the company set a high price range ($108-$135) and disclosed little information about the company’s future growth strategy. Tempered demand brought the IPO price down to $85, a much more reasonable price, but if you passed on bidding in the first round you couldn’t lower your bid when the range was lowered. The stock opened up $15 to $100 per share as some investors decided a sub-$100 price was a good bet.

In the following few months, Google stock doubled from its first day close to $200 a share. Headlines popped up everywhere that 1999 was back again, that we had learned nothing from the bubble. However, the skeptics had forgotten one important thing, Google actually makes money. The reason why stocks like Ariba, Commerce One, and theGlobe.com crashed from $100 to $1 was because their business models were flawed; they didn’t earn a dime. In 1999, analysts were justifying astronomical equity valuations by looking at revenues, not profits. Conventional wisdom back then was that with the increased use of the Internet, eventually the companies could turn sales and page hits into earnings.

For most companies, though, that never materialized and the stocks collapsed accordingly. There were, however, a select few that have survived, and not only survived, but thrived. eBay, Amazon, Yahoo, Interactive Corp, to name a few. Their market caps have risen steadily since the bubble burst for one simple reason, they are making a lot of money and still growing very quickly.

So, let’s come back to Google, which recently hit $200 before pulling back to the 160’s on concerns over its upcoming share lock-up expiration. There is one reason why those who got the Google IPO in August paid $85 and yet someone was still willing to pay $200 in November. Earnings. In the summer investors severely underestimated how much Google could earn. The initial earnings per share estimate for 2004 put out by the analysts was $1.31, giving Google a p/e of 65 at the $85 IPO price. Google’s growth rate was expected to be about 40% per year, about 10% sequentially for the foreseeable future. Understandably, many investors thought that, at best, Google’s IPO was fairly valued.

However, in October Google reported its first qaurter as a public company and it was a blowout. The analysts were wrong, and earnings estimates went through the roof. 2004 estimates now stand at $2.54, with 2005 numbers averaging $3.38 per share. If investors knew this in August, Google never would have priced at $85. Think about it. Forward EPS of $3.38, 40% growth rate, and an $85 stock price. That’s a forward p/e of 25x for 40% growth. Nobody on Wall Street would have pronounced the Google IPO overvalued if they knew it had a 2005 p/e of 25.

Recently Google has fallen from over 200 to the 160’s, mostly due to insiders who will be free to sell shares beginning in mid-November. Increased supply leads many to think Google will crash back to Earth. The question is, will a $35 or $40 decline in the stock price result in increased demand, and if so, will that demand be able to absorb the supply that will soon be hitting the market.

Nobody knows for sure, but we do know one thing. Investors so far have underestimated how much money Google can earn in the future. It wouldn’t be surprisng to me at all if after the company reports the next quarter or two, analysts once again have to raise their earnings estimates. At $165 per share, Google trades at 49x what the Street today expects them to earn next year. Given a 40+ percent growth rate and the potential for more blowout quarters to the upside, it seems that the lock-up fear has presented an opportunity to buy, not to sell.

Merck’s Value Proposition Could Prove Dangerous

Analysts and fund managers are quick to point out that recently decimated shares of pharma giant Merck (MRK) present value to investors; with an unusually high dividend ($1.52 annually for a yield of more than 5%), a below-market earnings multiple, and a stock price not seen in about a decade. Merck CEO Ray Gilmartin has remained adamant that the dividend is safe and will not be cut, despite 2005 earnings per share estimates having been slashed from $3.40 to $2.60 since the withdrawal of Vioxx.

With $2.5 billion in annual Vioxx sales now gone, investors are focused on thousands of class action lawsuits which are sure to surface shortly. Settling all claims could cost the company billions of dollars. Another blockbuster drug, Zocor, which amounts to $5 billion of Merck’s $22 billion in revenue, is set to come off patent in 2006. So, in a span of less than 2 years, Merck will have lost $7.5 billion in sales, or about a third of its business, all while attempting to defeat thousands of lawsuits from patients who have taken Vioxx for years.

It appears possible that concrete evidence will surface that could prove Merck management knew of the increased heart attack risk that Vioxx presented, but chose to keep it in close confidence. Although not a probable result, it is not out of the question that this company could be in trouble if such a scenario played out. With its base business set to deteriorate, the longevity of a large dividend payout certainly comes into question. As does the “value” presented by Merck shares with a 2005 P/E of 11, when it could prove very tough to hit the reduced EPS estimates of $2.60 per share.

Investors should not assume the 5-plus percent dividend makes the stock a safe value play, even if the CEO insists it will not be cut. Shorting the shares is costly as long as the dividend remains, as those who borrow the shares will have to pay whoever bought their shares. As a result, the best way to play a further fall in Merck shares, if you are wary of the company’s future prospects, may be owning in-the-money puts.