Apple iPad is Nice, Probably Not a Game Changer Yet

After seeing Apple’s unveiling of the new iPad tablet yesterday my overall conclusion is that the product is very solid and will probably find a niche with certain users, but it hardly seems to be the game changer for old media that many had hoped for.

Essentially the iPad is a thin, light-weight, extremely mobile device that can be described as a supersized iPhone or a thin netbook computer. You can surf the web, check email, play iTunes, and download iPhone-like apps customized for the device.

The real issue I see is that the iPad is not all that different than a netbook or iPhone, other than its physical design. The only unique feature of the iPad seems to be a new e-book store. In addition to buying songs, movies, and television shows from iTunes you will be able to buy e-books from an e-book store, modeled after the iPhone app store and the iTunes media store. Think thin netbook combined with an Amazon Kindle.

The clear loser here is Amazon, whose Kindle overnight gets a strong competitor. The clear winners were supposed to be the content publishers, including magazine and newspaper companies, not just book publishers. On that end, I think the expanded distribution of e-books will be good for those publishers, but the gains for newspapers and magazines is less apparent.

The problem those publishers face today is that most are giving away their content on the web and the advertising revenue they earn from web visitors pales in comparison to the subscription revenue they used to collect. Some have been able to charge for web content (Wall Street Journal) and others are starting to put pay walls on their sites (New York Times) but with so many free news sources on the web, it will be hard for most publishers to convince consumers to pay a monthly fee for their content.

I am not convinced the iPad solves this problem. The content companies will build apps for the iPad, just as they did for the iPhone, but the core issue is the same; will people pay for the content when there are other free options? If the answer is yes, then the publishers will get stronger going forward. If not, nothing will change.

If you put your content on the iPad for free, that is no different than the free web site people are using to access your content. If people are not willing to pay to use your web site today, why would they be willing to pay for an iPhone or iPad app with the same content?

Even after seeing the iPad in action, I think the content game is unchanged. If you truly have valuable content that is unique and in strong demand (Wall Street Journal), you can make good money with online content. If not, people will simply go to free news sites and your profits will evaporate as subscription revenue continues to decline.

Where does this leave Apple stock? They will likely sell a good number of iPads going forward so the product is certainly an incremental positive for the company and the stock. Believe it or not, the shares have been treading water for a while now, and therefore are not overly expensive. At $207 per share Apple sports a P/E ratio of about 18x based on $11-$12 of earnings power this year. Add in the $27 per share ($25 billion) of cash that is wasting away on their balance sheet and you can see that the stock is not super-cheap but is not overly expensive by any means.

Full Disclosure: Peridot Capital was long shares of Apple at the time of writing, but positions may change at any time

Glass-Steagal Act Should Not Be Core of Financial Regulatory Reform

There has been a lot of talk lately about the repeal of Glass-Steagal in the 1990’s and the potential that such a move contributed greatly to the financial crisis. Glass-Steagal, originally passed in 1933, had many parts to it but it is most widely known to have disallowed commercial banks that gathered customer deposits and gave out loans from also being investment banks that would underwrite securities and trade for their own account.

The logic of Glass-Steagal makes sense; banks should not use depositor or government capital to fund internal hedge funds. Should the enormous risks the trading desks take turn sour, it puts customers’ deposits in jeopardy and reduces the amount of lending the firm can do. Not to mention the fact that cheap government funding is given to banks to boost lending and the economy, not to generate trading profits for the firm’s partners.

Despite the soundness of the law, those who maintain that the repeal of Glass-Steagal was a leading contributor to the financial crisis are off base. Why? Because most of the casualties of the financial crisis were not banks at the time. Off the top of my head I can name AIG, Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac, Lehman Brothers, Bear Stearns, and Merrill Lynch.

None of those firms were commercial banks but they lost the most money. Those losses came from poor mortgage underwriting, poor insurance underwriting, and extreme leverage ratios of up to 40-to-1. More effective government regulation surely could have helped prevent such monumental downfalls (minimum underwriting standards and leverage limits to name a couple), but a combination business model of commercial and investment banking was not the culprit by any stretch of the imagination.

Now there were commercial banks that failed or nearly did during the recent crisis. Wachovia and Citigroup are the two big ones. But again, Glass-Steagal would not have prevented this. Citigroup was hampered by its leverage and significant holdings in mortgage backed securities, CDOs, and SIVs. Wachovia failed after it acquired a California-based mortgage lender that pioneered interest-only, pick-a-payment, and option ARM mortgage products. Such poor, undocumented, mortgage underwriting doomed them from the start, not investment banking (Wachovia did little, if any).

I am all for better regulation of the financial services sector, but many of the ideas floating around do not really address the core issues the industry faces. Not only that, existing regulators and laws easily allow for better regulation, without further changes, even though modern products such as credit default swaps and futures contracts clearly need to be regulated going forward.

Market Is Pricing In 35% Profit Growth in 2010

A theme of mine in recent weeks, as well as for 2010, is that the stock market has risen 70% from the March lows and has begun to price in the current consensus forecast of $75 in S&P 500 earnings, which would be a 35% increase from 2009. As a result, I think the Wall Street strategist consensus of a 10 -15% market gain this year seems overly optimistic. It is far more likely that earnings come in below $75 than above that level.. not a good risk-reward trade off.

Last evening we got the first big earnings report from the fourth quarter (Intel), they blew away the numbers (40 cents vs 30 cent estimate) and the stock is down this morning. JPM reported a decent number this morning (beat on earnings, light on sales) and it is down too. Whenever you see stocks not go up on good news, it is typically a clear sign that the markets have priced in the good news.

Despite a cautious market outlook short term, there are still good investments out there. I will share a couple in coming weeks to halt the post-holiday lull in postings on this site.