Apple Inc. (NASDAQ:AAPL) $162.83- Despite Apple shares rising more than 100% from its 2009 low of $78, the stock still appears to be attractively valued especially as a long-term holding. Using cash-flow and non-GAAP earnings, AAPL trades at less than 15x on a trailing 12-month basis. Since sales and cash flows were likely significantly depressed over that time period due to the sharp economic contraction, demand should improve considerably in the quarters ahead. Thus, forward multiples would be even lower given the anticipated rebound in sales and earnings growth.
The modest price multiple at which AAPL currently trades leads me to conclude that investors are: 1) Attributing the slowdown in Mac and iPod segments to a permanent secular decline, rather than temporary weakness consistent with economic contractions. 2) Ignoring / under-appreciating the growth potential of the iPhone and products yet to be introduced.
Non-GAAP Earnings & Cash Flow:
Apple has reported $5.72 GAAP EPS for the past 4 quarters combined [ttm]. However, over the same period, Apple has earned $9.23 in non-GAAP EPS [ttm]. The non-GAAP figures are a better representation of Apple's earnings power since iPhone revenues are recognized in the period sold and not deferred over a 24 month time frame as is the case with GAAP EPS. The GAAP EPS numbers grossly understate Apple's profitability and cash-flow generation.
Looking at the difference between GAAP revenue and non-GAAP revenue for the past 4 quarters, GAAP revenue would be $7.7B higher, or 22.3% if Apple were not required to account for iPhone sales using the subscription method. Reported EPS [ttm] would have been $3.51, or 61.4% higher as well. The most noticeable difference is the effect iPhone sales have on profit margins. Since the iPhone carries the highest margin for Apple hardware, there is a dramatic impact on gross and net margins when subscription accounting is reversed. Gross margin rises from 35.5% to 39.6%, and net margin increases from 15.0% to 19.7%.
From June 2008 to June 2009, Apple's cash holdings increased $10.35B, from $20.77B to $31.12B. On a per share basis, cash / share increased $11.38, or 50% from $22.85/share (June 2008) to $34.24/share (June 2009). Apple generated $10.26B in free cash flow over the last 4 quarters, or $11.28/share.
GAAP Revenue [ttm] has increased 10.9% compared to the prior trailing 4 quarters, yet non-GAAP sales increased 22.9%, more than double the rate of GAAP revenue growth. GAAP earnings growth [ttm] versus the prior 4 quarters was 10.5% ($5.72 vs. $5.12). However, non-GAAP EPS [ttm] increased 39.9% ($9.23 vs $5.55) compared to the same period for the prior year.
It is clearly evident that the reported GAAP figures widely understates Apple's true performance. Therefore, investors should focus on the non-GAAP numbers and cash flow when evaluating Apple.
Even though stock values reflect future cash flows, we can examine Apple's performance over the last 4 quarters [ttm] to use as a conservative proxy since the recessionary backdrop has most likely depressed revenue and earnings. Apple's GAAP EPS [ttm] of $5.72 translates into a historical P/E [ttm] of 28.5x. That would appear to be quite a rich valuation, especially given the multiple compression that has occurred in the overall equity market. Or, at least, imply significant future growth.
However, investors should know that evaluating AAPL based on GAAP accounting is completely flawed. To compare apples to apples, investors must gauge Apple using its non-GAAP figures relative to peers / market. Apple uses subscription accounting methods to account for iPhone sales which spreads handset revenues over 24 months by accruing unrecognized revenue in a deferred revenue account that is stated on its balance sheet. Apple's non-GAAP EPS [ttm] is $9.23 which equates to a trailing P/E of 17.6x. That is a stark difference than the misleading GAAP P/E of 28.5x.
Considering that Apple has $34.24/share in cash and securities that could theoretically be distributed to shareholders, Apple trades at even a lower multiple based on non-GAAP EPS ex cash. If we strip out $34.24 cash/share from AAPL's $162.83 share price, we are left with $128.59/share, which essentially reflects the value of Apple's operating assets. In addition, interest income must be stripped out of earnings before calculating a P/E multiple due to the assumption that the cash stockpile would be distributed, hence no longer contributing interest income to EPS. For the trailing 4 quarters, Apple earned 33 cents per share (after-tax) in interest income. Apple is trading 14.4x ex-cash [ttm] based non-GAAP EPS ex-interest income of $8.90.
When there is a large disparity between interest yield (interest income/cash) and earnings yield (EPS/Price or 1/PE), the large cash balances can skew the value of the (non-cash) operating assets. When short-term rates were over 5% (pre-tax) and Apple traded at 20+ multiple, the earnings yield was roughly equivalent to the cash yield. Therefore, there was little or no difference between the standard P/E and P/E ex-cash and interest. Now that current short-term rates are near zero, Apple's cash holdings contribute very little income to total company earnings.
If Apple used its $31.1B for a stock buyback, it could reduce share count by 191M to 718M. Non-GAAP EPS (adjusted for interest income) would rise to $11.21 translating into a P/E [ttm] of 14.5x.
In the past year, Apple's cash position has increased by $10.35B or $11.38/share giving a P/CF [ttm] of 14.3x. Trailing free cash flow was slightly less at $10.26B giving a P/FCF [ttm] multiple of 14.4x. Removing the value of cash and interest income (from share price & FCF), the P/FCF multiple drops to 11.7x.
Recall that this valuation exercise has been based on historical earnings, not expected future earnings which is more appropriate since investors only care about future cash flows. However, I used trailing earnings since those figures are known while future earnings are not. I am confident that Apple's next 4 quarters will be better than its previous four. The economy has been in a deep recession for the past year, but has begun to improve. Apple has managed to withstand the downturn reasonably well; and with the success of the iPhone/App Store, along with the possibility of new products, Apple's growth should accelerate moving forward. Thus, I am reasonably confident that Apple's valuation multiples are even lower on a prospective basis.
Price Implied Expectations:
Trading for less 15x trailing earnings and ~12x expected earnings, AAPL on the surface appears cheap. Historically AAPL has traded at much higher valuations, yet expected growth was much higher too. In addition, investors are demanding a higher required rate of return on equities by paying lower price multiples. The increase in equity risk premium inherent in all stocks has led to the decline in P/E ratios. Investors perceive greater risks and are less sanguine about the long-run prospects of equity returns. This accounts for a portion of Apple's low valuation relative to its historical premium.
The primary reason why the investors are assigning a paltry price multiple is due to expected declines in Apple's growth rate. In my opinion, the current share price reflects the expectation of Mac growth commensurate with the industry average, declining iPod growth, and iPhone growth that will peak and rapidly decline to the industry average in a couple years. In short, Apple is priced as if its growth is quickly maturing, such as Microsoft (NASDAQ:MSFT) or DELL who both saw their margins compress as growth stalled. All firms eventually fall victim to the industry / firm life cycle. However, is this expectation likely for Apple's future? That is the key question.
I don't believe that overly optimistic or unrealistic expectations are priced-in AAPL shares. I believe the current outlook implied by the share price is conservative, but not entirely unlikely. The future of Apple's growth hinges on innovation and new products / services, as it does for most firms. Many firms are unsuccessful at being able to continue to innovate, staying relevant and avoiding being commoditized. In short, Apple's share price doesn't give much value to its ability to innovate and reignite growth. In my opinion, it's the belief whether or not Apple can continue to introduce products that wow consumers that determines if AAPL is over or under valued.
Apple's Record of Successful Innovation and Execution:
1) iPod's Dominant Market Share-
Apple's unit market share has exceeded 70% in the U.S. for years as it has successfully continued to ward off competition leaving carcasses by the wayside. Many powerful companies such as Dell, Sony (NYSE:SNE), and Microsoft have attempted dethrone the iPod, only to fall short or outright fail. Apple has been able to keep iPod prices relatively high as its revenue share of the U.S. PMP market is higher than 90%.
2) Apple's iTunes store is largest music retailer-
iTunes surpassed Best Buy (NYSE:BBY) and Wal-Mart (NYSE:WMT) to take the top spot in sales volume. Apple should increase its lead as bricks and mortar stores cutback on music selection due to high inventory cost and required floor space. Demand for physical music continues to decline as consumers shift to buying digital music online. Competitors have followed with online music download stores, yet they have made little dent in iTunes' market share.
3) Retail stores generate highest revenue/sq.ft. and foot traffic-
It's quite indisputable that any retail strategy has been as successful as Apple's retail stores. Apple leads in performance metrics such as revenue/sq.ft. and visitors/store etc, but its retail strategy also has been extremely successful in promoting its brand and introducing customers to its products. Other computer makers' retail efforts have failed, such as Gateway and Dell. Many third-party computer and electronics resellers have also disappeared, such as CompUSA and Circuit City. It's quite evident that it's a very challenging environment to navigate. Apple continues to open new stores and is expanding considerably abroad.
4) Turn-around of Mac business and domination of premium segment:
Mac unit sales increased 38% in FY08 and 40% in FY07, which was more than 3x the PC industry as a whole outpacing the industry in 18 of the last 19 quarters. Even though Mac unit growth has slowed to single-digits, its share of the premium price segment has exploded. According to NPD, Macs made up 91% of sales for PCs priced $1000 and above for June 2009, up from 88% in May. This compares to 66% share Mac had in Early 2008. I believe Apple had about 40% share of the premium market in 2007. It is quite evident that Apple is the only PC manufacturer than can command a premium for its products.
5) Large and increasing share of smartphone market-
Even with the experience and industry footing incumbent mobile handset makers possessed, Apple was able to enter the market and quickly gain share. According to several surveys, the iPhone has the highest satisfaction rates by a considerable margin. Industry competition is very intense, yet Apple is the one to catch in the smartphone segment.
6) iTunes App Store-
One year after launching, the iTunes App Store offers 65K applications and has seen over 1.5B downloads. Other firms have followed with their own mobile app stores, yet haven't been able to duplicate nearly as much developer and consumer interest. Nintendo (OTCPK:NTDOY) mentioned last quarter that Apple's App Store is impacting its handheld gaming business.
These remarkable achievements illustrate a common theme. Apple has been able to enter new product markets and become the leader that others must chase. Even though many competitors have attempted to duplicate Apple's strategy, most have hardly had much success, at least in terms of stealing business from Apple.
A popular concern among Apple investors is the increasing competition from the number of firms following in Apple's footsteps. They believe that others will eventually catch up with Apple (iPhone, App Store, iTunes Music), hence its lead is only temporary. However, this has been a concern for ages and yet to come to fruition. That is not to say it won't happen, as there is a real possibility that it will eventually. But given Apple's proven track record of disrupting, dominating, and defending its new endeavors, it's likely Apple will remain the innovative leader for sometime.
Apple's share price may reflect declining iPod growth and decelerating Mac growth, but it doesn't reflect potential new products which are a certainty. The success of those new products are less certain, but Apple makes products / services that are complementary to its others, rather natural extensions. Basically, Apple products help drive sales of other products as well as increasing switching costs creating customer "lock-in."
Apple's products elicit the some of the highest customer satisfaction scores for their respective categories which has created immense loyalty and a powerful brand.
On a non-GAAP basis ex-cash, Apple is trading at less than 15x trailing EPS. Considering the economy has been going through the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression, Apple's trailing earnings are depressed. As the economy turns up, earnings will normalize at a higher level. In addition, iPhone sales should continue to exhibit strong growth and drive free cash flow. Therefore, investors should be highly confident that future earnings will be considerably higher.
On a forward earnings basis, AAPL's price multiple is 10-12x, a valuation representative of maturing growth. However, Apple has a long track record of innovation and using products to promote and attract consumers to its other offerings. Looking at the many remarkable achievements by Apple and the many stumbles by competitors, it can be argued that AAPL deserves a premium multiple, not a multiple reflective of ordinary growth.
Disclosure: Long AAPL