New iPhones are not enough to keep Apple’s stock going, it needs a new category

It is hard to find a bigger Apple stock cheerleader than me. I’ve been writing Apple stock love poems for years. For a long time, it was easy to love the shares because they were unloved by others and it was cheap.

Until recently, when Apple stock was still trading in the low $100s and at single-digit multiples, we were buying current product categories at a discount and were not paying for future product categories.

At today’s price that is not the case anymore. That is true with any company – the more expensive the stock gets, the more clairvoyance investors need to discern the company’s future growth.

At Apple’s size it is very hard for the company to increase its earnings significantly. Macs, iPads, and even iPhones are mature products.

The iPhone may have a few growth spurts left, but not many. It is facing an unavoidable headwind: the elongation of its replacement cycle. The iPhone improved substantially over the years, but as the i-marvels piled up, the incremental improvements that motivated people to buy a new phone every two years or so became less and less significant.

At some point the iPhone will face the fate of the iPad – its replacement cycle long in the tooth and sales stagnant and declining.

Will the iPhone’s sales stop growing in 2018, or 2020? I don’t know, but from a long-term perspective of the company’s valuation, a few years don’t make that much difference.

(A new iPhone is expected to be unveiled next week. The stock fell slightly Wednesday on concern supply disruptions could cause shipping delays with the new phone.)

Services is the only segment that can grow at a double-digit rate for a considerable period of time, but it only represents 13 percent of revenue. Even the Apple Watch doesn’t really move the needle.

They need another genius

But can Apple come up with new product categories? Let’s ponder on this question in the context of the following quote:

“Talent hits a target no one else can hit; Genius hits a target no one else can see.” – Arthur Schopenhauer

Apple has a lot of talented people designing and redesigning products in the categories that Apple already dominates. They are hitting a lot of targets no else can hit. Apple’s brand is as healthy as ever, and so is product satisfaction.

However, to create a new category of products Apple needs to “hit targets no one else can see,” and this requires a genius. But in an organization of this size with a lot of bright and talented people, it also requires a benevolent dictator – someone able to make bold, unconventional decisions (and own them), someone who in addition to everything else is able to inspire others to create what they may think is impossible. Yes, I am referring to the one and only Steve Jobs, he of the “reality distortion field.”

 

Here is an instance that comes to mind: Jobs asked his engineers to come up with a touchscreen computer – a tablet. They did. It looked like a bulky version of today’s iPad. Steve looked at and said “Let’s put the tablet on ice,” then refocused the company on miniaturizing that tablet and making a phone instead.

It is important to remember that at the time, though Apple was financially healthy, it was not swimming in cash the way it does today. Jobs made a benevolent dictator-like decision: He diverted engineers who were working on the MacOS to work on what would become the iPhone OS, causing the late release of some Mac products. And only years later, after the iPhone was a raging success, Apple brought the iPad back to life. That was Jobs’ Apple.

Now let’s visit Tim Cook’s Apple. The New York Times ran an in-depth article unearthing why Apple has (so far) failed to come up with an electric self-driving car. These few sentences jumped out at me:

“But the car project ran into trouble, said the five people familiar with it, dogged by its size and by the lack of a clearly defined vision of what Apple wanted in a vehicle. Team members complained of shifting priorities and arbitrary or unrealistic deadlines.”

Nokia spent a lot on R&D too

Even Jobs admitted that Cook is not a “product man.” Cook doesn’t have “the vision,” and thus he doesn’t have the authority to be a benevolent dictator. Nor does he have the charisma to project and maintain a reality distortion field.

Today Apple spends almost $12 billion on R&D – double what it spent just a few years ago. But as outside observers, we really don’t know where this money is going. Or more importantly, how productively it is being spent. I vividly remember how Nokia was increasing its R&D spend every year during the last years of its dumb-phone dominance, but all that R&D did not bring forth new products that would have saved the company from its eventual demise. Apple is not facing Nokia-like collapse, but the R&D argument still stands: R&D spend doesn’t always equal great new products.

The NY Times article said that Apple curtailed its ambition to make a car and is now focusing solely on self-driving technology. In other words, Apple is basically pulling out of the electric car space (at least for now).

If Apple develops and licenses its self-driving technology, it will recover some of its losses on investments made to date. But it will not be able to take advantage of the significant competitive advantage that comes with its incredible brand, its distribution network – hundreds of stores (potential car dealerships) sprinkled all over the world – its know-how in battery management, its design prowess, and its i-ecosystem.

We still own a little bit of Apple stock but have sold most of what we owned at current prices. Maybe Apple’s augmented reality products will become a huge success, or maybe the company is working on a brand new category of products that we have not even imagined. It is all possible.

In making investment decisions you never have perfect information. Apple is no exception. At today’s valuation we are paying for genius – Apple’s ability to successfully create and dominate a new, large product category. While the company is run by very talented people who will do a great job getting us excited about the categories of products they are already in, the company’s genius died with Steve Jobs.

Read addition thoughts on Apple, here.

I am the CIO at Investment Management Associates, which is anything but your average investment firm. (Seriously, take a look.)

I wrote two books on investing, which were published by John Wiley & Sons and have been translated into eight languages. (Even in Polish!)

In a brief moment of senility, Forbes magazine called me “the new Benjamin Graham.” (They must have been impressed by the eloquence of the Polish translation.)

Smitten by this article? Don’t let your love remain unrequited. Sign up here to get my latest articles in your inbox.

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New iPhones are not enough to keep Apple’s stock going, it needs a new category

It is hard to find a bigger Apple stock cheerleader than me. I’ve been writing Apple stock love poems for years. For a long time, it was easy to love the shares because they were unloved by others and it was cheap.

Until recently, when Apple stock was still trading in the low $100s and at single-digit multiples, we were buying current product categories at a discount and were not paying for future product categories.

At today’s price that is not the case anymore. That is true with any company – the more expensive the stock gets, the more clairvoyance investors need to discern the company’s future growth.

At Apple’s size it is very hard for the company to increase its earnings significantly. Macs, iPads, and even iPhones are mature products.

The iPhone may have a few growth spurts left, but not many. It is facing an unavoidable headwind: the elongation of its replacement cycle. The iPhone improved substantially over the years, but as the i-marvels piled up, the incremental improvements that motivated people to buy a new phone every two years or so became less and less significant.

At some point the iPhone will face the fate of the iPad – its replacement cycle long in the tooth and sales stagnant and declining.

Will the iPhone’s sales stop growing in 2018, or 2020? I don’t know, but from a long-term perspective of the company’s valuation, a few years don’t make that much difference.

(A new iPhone is expected to be unveiled next week. The stock fell slightly Wednesday on concern supply disruptions could cause shipping delays with the new phone.)

Services is the only segment that can grow at a double-digit rate for a considerable period of time, but it only represents 13 percent of revenue. Even the Apple Watch doesn’t really move the needle.

They need another genius

But can Apple come up with new product categories? Let’s ponder on this question in the context of the following quote:

“Talent hits a target no one else can hit; Genius hits a target no one else can see.” – Arthur Schopenhauer

Apple has a lot of talented people designing and redesigning products in the categories that Apple already dominates. They are hitting a lot of targets no else can hit. Apple’s brand is as healthy as ever, and so is product satisfaction.

However, to create a new category of products Apple needs to “hit targets no one else can see,” and this requires a genius. But in an organization of this size with a lot of bright and talented people, it also requires a benevolent dictator – someone able to make bold, unconventional decisions (and own them), someone who in addition to everything else is able to inspire others to create what they may think is impossible. Yes, I am referring to the one and only Steve Jobs, he of the “reality distortion field.”

 

Here is an instance that comes to mind: Jobs asked his engineers to come up with a touchscreen computer – a tablet. They did. It looked like a bulky version of today’s iPad. Steve looked at and said “Let’s put the tablet on ice,” then refocused the company on miniaturizing that tablet and making a phone instead.

It is important to remember that at the time, though Apple was financially healthy, it was not swimming in cash the way it does today. Jobs made a benevolent dictator-like decision: He diverted engineers who were working on the MacOS to work on what would become the iPhone OS, causing the late release of some Mac products. And only years later, after the iPhone was a raging success, Apple brought the iPad back to life. That was Jobs’ Apple.

Now let’s visit Tim Cook’s Apple. The New York Times ran an in-depth article unearthing why Apple has (so far) failed to come up with an electric self-driving car. These few sentences jumped out at me:

“But the car project ran into trouble, said the five people familiar with it, dogged by its size and by the lack of a clearly defined vision of what Apple wanted in a vehicle. Team members complained of shifting priorities and arbitrary or unrealistic deadlines.”

Nokia spent a lot on R&D too

Even Jobs admitted that Cook is not a “product man.” Cook doesn’t have “the vision,” and thus he doesn’t have the authority to be a benevolent dictator. Nor does he have the charisma to project and maintain a reality distortion field.

Today Apple spends almost $12 billion on R&D – double what it spent just a few years ago. But as outside observers, we really don’t know where this money is going. Or more importantly, how productively it is being spent. I vividly remember how Nokia was increasing its R&D spend every year during the last years of its dumb-phone dominance, but all that R&D did not bring forth new products that would have saved the company from its eventual demise. Apple is not facing Nokia-like collapse, but the R&D argument still stands: R&D spend doesn’t always equal great new products.

The NY Times article said that Apple curtailed its ambition to make a car and is now focusing solely on self-driving technology. In other words, Apple is basically pulling out of the electric car space (at least for now).

If Apple develops and licenses its self-driving technology, it will recover some of its losses on investments made to date. But it will not be able to take advantage of the significant competitive advantage that comes with its incredible brand, its distribution network – hundreds of stores (potential car dealerships) sprinkled all over the world – its know-how in battery management, its design prowess, and its i-ecosystem.

We still own a little bit of Apple stock but have sold most of what we owned at current prices. Maybe Apple’s augmented reality products will become a huge success, or maybe the company is working on a brand new category of products that we have not even imagined. It is all possible.

In making investment decisions you never have perfect information. Apple is no exception. At today’s valuation we are paying for genius – Apple’s ability to successfully create and dominate a new, large product category. While the company is run by very talented people who will do a great job getting us excited about the categories of products they are already in, the company’s genius died with Steve Jobs.

Read addition thoughts on Apple, here.

I am the CIO at Investment Management Associates, which is anything but your average investment firm. (Seriously, take a look.)

I wrote two books on investing, which were published by John Wiley & Sons and have been translated into eight languages. (Even in Polish!)

In a brief moment of senility, Forbes magazine called me “the new Benjamin Graham.” (They must have been impressed by the eloquence of the Polish translation.)

Smitten by this article? Don’t let your love remain unrequited. Sign up here to get my latest articles in your inbox.

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Amazon isn’t the No. 1 villain in retail sector’s demise

Retail stocks have been annihilated recently, despite the economy eking out growth. The fundamentals of the retail business look horrible: Sales are stagnating and profitability is getting worse with every passing quarter.

Jeff Bezos and Amazon get most of the credit, but this credit is misplaced. Today, online sales represent only 8.5 percent of total retail sales. Amazon, at $80 billion in sales, accounts only for 1.5 percent of total U.S. retail sales, which at the end of 2016 were around $5.5 trillion. Though it is human nature to look for the simplest explanation, in truth, the confluence of a half-dozen unrelated developments is responsible for weak retail sales.

Our consumption needs and preferences have changed significantly. Ten years ago we spent a pittance on cellphones. Today Apple sells roughly $100 billion worth of i-goods in the U.S., and about two-thirds of those sales are iPhones. Apple’s U.S. market share is about 44 percent, thus the total smart mobile phone market in the U.S. is $150 billion a year. Add spending on smartphone accessories (cases, cables, glass protectors, etc.) and we are probably looking at $200 billion total spending a year on smartphones and accessories.

Ten years ago (before the introduction of the iPhone) smartphone sales were close to zero. Nokia was the king of dumb phones, with sales in the U.S. in 2006 of $4 billion. The total dumb cellphone handset market in the U.S. in 2006 was probably closer to $10 billion.

Consumer income has not changed much since 2006, thus over the last 10 years $190 billion in consumer spending was diverted toward mobile phones.

It gets more interesting. In 2006 a cellphone was a luxury only affordable by adults, but today 7-year-olds have iPhones. Our phone bill per household more than doubled over the last decade. Not to bore you with too many data points, but Verizon’s wireless’s revenue in 2006 was $38 billion. Fast-forward 10 years and it is $89 billion — a $51 billion increase. Verizon’s market share is about 30 percent, thus the total spending increase on wireless services is close to $150 billion.

Between phones and their services, this is $340 billion that will not be spent on T-shirts and shoes.

But we are not done. The combination of mid-single-digit health-care inflation and the proliferation of high-deductible plans has increased consumer direct health-care costs and further chipped away at our discretionary dollars. Health-care spending in the U.S. is $3.3 trillion, and just 3 percent of that figure is almost $100 billion.

Then there are soft, hard-to-quantify factors. Millennials and millennial-want-to-be generations (speaking for myself here) don’t really care about clothes as much as we may have 10 years ago. After all, our high-tech billionaires wear hoodies and flip-flops to work. Lack of fashion sense did not hinder their success, so why should the rest of us care about the dress code?

In the ’90s casual Fridays were a big deal – yippee, we could wear jeans to work! Fast-forward 20 years, and every day is casual. Suits? They are worn to job interviews or to impress old-fashioned clients. Consumer habits have slowly changed, and we now put less value on clothes (and thus spend less money on them) and more value on having the latest iThing.

All this brings us to a hard and sad reality: The U.S. is over-retailed. We simply have too many stores. Americans have four or five times more square footage per capita than other developed countries. This bloated square footage was created for a different consumer, the one who in in the ’90s and ’00s was borrowing money against her house and spending it at her local shopping mall.

Today’s post-Great Recession consumer is deleveraging, paying off her debt, spending money on new necessities such as mobile phones, and paying more for the old ones such as health care.

Yes, Amazon and online sales do matter. Ten years ago only 2.5 percent of retail sales took place online, and today that number is 8.5 percent – about a $300 billion change. Some of these online sales were captured by brick-and-mortar online sales, some by e-commerce giants like Amazon, and some by brands selling directly to consumers.

But as you can see, online sales are just one piece of a very complex retail puzzle. All the aforementioned factors combined explain why, when gasoline prices declined by almost 50 percent (gifting consumers hundreds of dollars of discretionary spending a month), retailers’ profitability and consumer spending did not flinch – those savings were more than absorbed by other expenses.

Understanding that online sales (when we say this we really mean Amazon) are not the only culprit responsible for horrible retail numbers is crucial in the analysis of retail stocks. If you are only solving “who can fight back the best against Amazon?” you are only solving for one variable in a multivariable problem: – Consumers’ habits have changed; the U.S. is over-retailed; and consumer spending is being diverted to different parts of the economy.

As value investors we are naturally attracted to hated sectors. However, we demand a much greater margin of safety from retail stocks, because estimating their future cash flows (and thus fair value) is becoming increasingly difficult. Warren Buffett has said that you want to own a business that can be run by an idiot, because one day it will be. A successful retail business in today’s world cannot be run by by an idiot. It requires Bezos-like qualities: being totally consumer-focused, taking risks, thinking long term.

Vitaliy N. Katsenelson, CFA

I am the CIO at Investment Management Associates, which is anything but your average investment firm. (Seriously, take a look.)

I wrote two books on investing, which were published by John Wiley & Sons and have been translated into eight languages. (Polish is one of them – go figure.)

In a brief moment of senility, Forbes magazine called me “the new Benjamin Graham.” (They must have been impressed by the eloquence of the Polish translation.)

Smitten by this article? Don’t let your love remain unrequited.   Sign up here to get my latest articles in your inbox.

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