Apple Stock Hitting New Highs: Where To From Here?

It has been a little over a year since I wrote that Apple Stock Can Easily Reach $450 last January, which at the time was more than $100 above where the shares were trading. Thanks to an absolutely stunning fourth quarter earnings report, Apple pierced that level late last month and closed yesterday at a new high of $464 per share. So, where to from here?

The company continues to defy expectations on the profit front, and after crushing numbers for the holiday quarter, analysts now expect $42 of earnings per share in fiscal 2012, up from just a $35 consensus figure a few weeks ago. In addition, cash continues to build on the balance sheet, reaching $98 billion at year-end, up 50% from a year ago.

An interesting thing has happened with the stock, though. As management has continued to hoard cash unnecessarily, and the company reaches a size that many believe makes it prone to a stumble in the not-too-distant future (investors expect this $100 billion a year company to grow 45% this year), the P/E ratio of the stock has tumbled. In fact, Apple now trades at a discount to the S&P 500 index on a trailing earnings basis (13x vs 14x). Looking out at 2012 profit expectations, the gap widens further as Apple’s P/E drops to about 11x. And that does not even include the $100 per share of cash Apple is sitting on.

As far as the cash goes, Apple is essentially getting no credit for it in the public market. The stock trades for about 8.7 times 2012 earnings ex-cash, which tells me that if they did pay a huge one-time special dividend ($50 per share would be my recommendation, not that anyone has come asking), the stock would likely not drop as would be the case in most similar instances (doing so would mean the discount to the market would get even larger). This is one of the reasons I am not selling Apple shares yet.

In terms of earnings, it appears that the days of Apple commanding a premium in the market are behind us. Even with a ridiculously positive earnings surprise for the fourth quarter, Apple stock popped just 6%. That compares with an earnings beat of 35% and an upward revision for 2012 profits of some 20%. Given Apple’s size, extreme bullish sentiment, and awful capital allocation practices, investors are not going to give them a rich valuation, which limits upside to a certain degree by taking multiple expansion off the table.

Given these new parameters, how can we value the darn thing? First, I will assume they do not change their cash management strategy this year (a painful thought). Since I do not see the market giving Apple more than a market multiple, I would multiply $42 in earnings for fiscal 2012 by 13 (market P/E) and that gets us to $546 per share. There are plenty of Wall Street analysts with year-end price targets that have a six in front of them, but I just do not see that happening. So, my best case guess is 17-18% upside from here, and maybe a bit more if Tim Cook eases up the company’s death grip on their cash. As a result, I am not a seller yet, even though the stock reached my $450 target price from last year.

Full Disclosure: Long shares of Apple at the time of writing, but positions may change at any time.