October 30, 2020

Breakingviews: Apple’s reinvention risks are yet to be priced in

by Breakingviews.

Tim Cook is enjoying a second bite at the Apple. While the tech firm he runs remains best known for the iPhone, revenue from selling apps, streaming content and licenses surged 16% in the latest quarter, year-on-year, to $14.5 billion. With smartphone sales largely mature, this expansion in services is the main reason Apple’s market capitalization has doubled in two years to $1.9 trillion. That may underprice the risks.

New iPhones are no longer powering rapid growth. Analysts expect earnings to increase around 10% annually in the next two years, according to Refinitiv data. From 2010 to 2015, they grew at some 30% per year. Apple traded at just over 14 times estimated earnings on average over the past decade. Now that multiple is twice as high.

Sure, recurring services should bring in stickier revenue that is more valuable than one-time sales of gadgets like smartphones, tablets and computers. Apple’s earnings from services in the next 12 months should be $1.73 per share, according to estimates from Cowen, or about 40% of the total. That leaves $2.50 per share from other operations. Put those on Apple’s 10-year average multiple and they are worth about $36 per share. Apple stock closed on Wednesday at $111. On that simple analysis, the implied value for services is $75 per share, or more than 40 times Cowen’s forecast earnings for the segment.

That’s a lot higher than the 28 times forward earnings figure for Alphabet, which also sells services and owns an app store. And the U.S. Department of Justice is suing that company’s Google unit, focusing on annual payments to Apple – between $8 billion and $12 billion according to regulators – to secure Google’s spot as the default search engine on iPhones. That’s more than a quarter of Apple’s estimated services profit potentially at risk.

Meanwhile, software firms like “Fortnite” maker Epic Games and streaming outfit Spotify Technology are rebelling against the hefty cut Apple takes of app-related payments.

If investors started valuing Apple’s services earnings on the same multiple as Alphabet, that could knock about a quarter, or nearly $500 billion, off the company’s market capitalization. As things stand, Cook’s empire is priced as though neither regulators nor rivals will get anywhere.

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BREAKINGVIEWS

Reuters Breakingviews is the world’s leading source of agenda-setting financial insight. As the Reuters brand for financial commentary, we dissect the big business and economic stories as they break around the world every day. A global team of about 30 correspondents in New York, London, Hong Kong and other major cities provides expert analysis in real time.

Sign up for a free trial of our full service at https://www.breakingviews.com/trial and follow us on Twitter @Breakingviews and at www.breakingviews.com. All opinions expressed are those of the authors.

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