I often get a little bit of flak from a handful of fellow value investors when I write about owning tech companies such as Apple (NASDAQ:AAPL) or Research in Motion (RIMM). How can you call yourself a value investor and own growth stocks like these, they ask?
For me it all comes down to valuation, not growth rates. If RIMM trades at 9 times earnings, why would I not want to own it as a value manager? It trades at a huge discount to the market and its peer group. Isn’t that what value investing is all about, finding stocks trading at a discount? If two stocks I am looking at both trade at 9 times earnings, but one is growing at 5% a year and the other is growing at 25% a year, I am going to favor the one growing at 25% a year (all else equal) because it has even more upside. That should not mean that I am abandoning my core investment strategy. When the stock reaches a market multiple and no longer trades at a discount, I will sell and move on.
Which brings me to Apple. How can I justify continuing to own Apple after the enormous move the stock has made over the last decade? Because for some strange reason it still trades at a discount. The company just reported quarterly earnings of $6.43 per share, more than $1 above estimates, giving them an annual earnings run rate of nearly $26 per share. Even after a solid after-hours rally the stock sits at $344, which is really more like $280 after you net out the $64 of cash and no debt on the company's balance sheet. Apple stock, therefore, trades at an astounding 11 times its annual earnings run-rate, a 20% discount to the S&P 500 index, which is why my clients still own it.
When will I sell? Well, if we assign a 15 P/E to nearly $26 of earnings and add back $64 per share of net cash, we get about $450 per share. At that price the stock would no longer trade at a discount to either the market or its peer group, so I will move on. Even at $450 growth investors will likely still argue that Apple is “cheap” based on its growth rate (they often are willing to pay up to a P/E of twice a company’s growth rate), but that is a growth investor’s mentality. And although it is hard for some to belief, it is not the one I use when allocating clients’ investment capital.
Full Disclosure: Long shares of Apple and Research in Motion at the time of writing, but positions may change at any time.