As one of the world’s best performing stocks, Apple (NASDAQ:AAPL) has gained close to 40% this year. The stock, which last peaked at $182.13 not too long ago, is currently less than 7% from being the first U.S. publicly listed company to reach a $3 trillion market value and single-handedly accounts for about 15% of the tech-heavy Nasdaq 100’s performance. Apple’s market value has grown by more than 220x since the late 1990s, buoyed by the company’s continuous ability to capture robust demand for its innovative portfolio of products and services.
And Apple’s strong fundamentals are expected to help the stock defy adverse impacts from the imminent rate hikes beginning next year. With inflation running at its hottest in almost four decades, the Federal Reserve decided Wednesday that it will increase the pace at which it is dialing back on the $120 billion monthly bond repurchasing program from $15 billion per month, which began in November, to $30 billion per month. This would effectively conclude the stimulus program, put in place at the onset of the pandemic, coming March, rather than in July as initially planned. Rate hikes are expected to begin soon after to counter rising price pressures, with Federal Reserve Chair Jerome Powell affirming that the process will only begin after tapering ends and at a gradual pace. The latest dot plot indicates potential for the Federal Fund Rate to lift-off from near-zero beginning early 2022 with three quarter-point increases, plus another three in 2023 and two more in 2024. If materialized, the process would up the funds rate to 2.1% by 2024.
While rate hikes typically cause investors to turn risk averse due to concerns over faster erosion of value on future gains and stalled business growth due to rising costs of capital, especially for high-growth stocks, Apple gained close to 3% upon release of the Fed’s update on policy tightening. The stock closed at $179.30 on December 15th, nearing its peak of $182 on Monday. Apple’s rally, along with similar uptrends observed across other mega-cap tech stocks, accordingly drove intra-day gains of 2.4% for the Nasdaq 100 following the Federal Reserve’s update, indicating investors’ preference to park their money in companies with robust growth prospects to counter risks from the impending rate increases.
With the coming holiday season a boon for Apple’s December-quarter sales, the stock’s valuation is expected to enter in the $3 trillion territory sooner than expected. Continued robust demand observed across Apple’s entire product line, generous share buy-backs, and additional revenue contributions expected within the foreseeable future resulting from new, cutting-edge products will also be key catalysts to support the company’s persistently strong fundamentals and keep the stock’s valuation above $3 trillion despite the impending rate hikes. Considering recent developments to the broader market and Apple’s growth prospects, we are raising our 12-month price target for the stock to $209.43.
Fiscal 2021 was a big year for Apple. The company’s revenues for the year grew 33% from fiscal 2020 to $366 billion, despite on-and-off store closures resulting from recurring coronavirus outbreaks and supply chain constraints that have led to more than $9 billion in lost sales. Every product and service segment achieved record-setting revenues with more than 20% growth from previous year results. Much of the year’s success were attributable to a series of new product launches and feature upgrades. The most notable of which included the 5G-enabled family of iPhone 12s and iPhone 13s, as well as the M1-powered MacBook Pro and iPad Pro.
iPhone sales grew by 39% this year, the most amongst other segments, and drove more than half of Apple’s fiscal 2021 revenues. The results were a stark contrast to last year’s slump in demand for the mobile device when consumers braced for pandemic-driven economic uncertainties. iPhone sales are expected to remain robust in coming years as global 5G device upgrades continue to gather pace. The likely launch of a more affordable 5G-enabled iPhone SE in 2022 is also expected to further Apple’s market share gains by attracting switchers from “more than a billion non-premium Android users”, and drive the active installed base to another all-time high. The anticipated momentum is further corroborated by iPhone sales patterns observed in recent quarters following the launch of 5G-enabled iPhone 12s and iPhone 13s, where the number of upgraders and switchers grew by strong double digits. Apple’s strong ties with cell-phone carriers is also expected to drive meaningful iPhone sales contributions in coming years. Reputable wireless carriers in the U.S. like Verizon and AT&T have already been keen on promoting the sale of 5G-enabled devices like the iPhone 12 and iPhone 13 to encourage migration to the 5G network that they have spent billions of dollars on building across the nation. Telecom companies around the world are expected to spend more than $700 billion over the next five years on building-out the 5G network, underscoring significant additional growth opportunities ahead for the iPhone segment as carriers push for the strongest multiyear upgrade cycle in a decade to recoup their investments.
Mac and iPad sales also grew significantly in fiscal 2021, reaching record revenues of $35.2 billion and $31.9 billion, respectively. Following the introduction of the all-new M1-powered iMac earlier this year, Apple also unveiled the reimagined M1-Pro / M1-Max powered MacBook Pro in October. The custom M1 processors made the newest MacBook “better than any Intel-based device for nearly every productivity use case outside of gaming”. This accordingly drove incredible demand for the portable workstation from a diverse group of consumers, ranging from professional creators and photographers to corporate users and students. The company is estimated to have shipped over 3.2 million units of Mac products during the September quarter, which drove record-setting revenues for the segment, while boosting its rank in global PC sales to fourth place amongst other vendors. The introduction of M1-processors in Apple’s computing products also bolstered its position in capitalizing on the surge in global demand for PCs and multi-purpose tablets by allowing the company to build devices with innovative features that can be seamlessly integrated across its ecosystem of peripheral accessories and services to draw adjacent revenues. With accelerated adoption of hybrid work and study arrangements in the post-pandemic era, global demand for portable workstations like PCs and multi-purpose tablets are expected to remain elevated in coming years – the sectors are expected to grow into a $224.3 billion and $600 billion market, respectively, by 2025, which makes favorable trends for Apple’s Mac and iPad segments.
Recent speculations on Apple’s intentions to strengthen its in-house chip development capacity will likely further the advancement of its technologies offered in coming years and draw additional demand to its products. The company is currently looking for engineers to build-out its capacity in the development of “wireless radios, radio-frequency integrated circuits, and a wireless system-on-chip (“SoC”)”, as well as “semiconductors for connecting Bluetooth and Wi-Fi”. These developments are expected to further enhance seamless integration across Apple’s devices and increase stickiness to its ecosystem of product and service offerings, making its chip unit one of the company’s “most prized assets”.
On the services front, a strong subscriber base had enabled the segment to hit record-setting revenues of more than $68.4 billion in fiscal 2021, up 27% from the prior year. To date, Apple has garnered more than 745 million paid subscribers across its high-margin service offerings, representing a five-fold increase over the last five years. Apple’s increasing push for a subscription-based business model across its wide variety of service platforms, ranging from Apple Music to iCloud storage solutions, paired with attractive new offerings that address key consumer trends in recent years have been a key driver to the company’s fast-expanding margins. New exciting add-on features introduced for existing service platforms include Spatial Audio and Lossless Audio for Apple Music and the Apple Music Voice Plan. The new subscription-based offerings are expected to further Apple’s reach to adjacent opportunities stemming from increasing global usage of smartphones, laptops and other advanced home electronic products – for instance, the global music streaming market is expected to expand at a CAGR of 16% towards a projected value of $61 billion over the next five years, underscoring significant growth headroom for Apple Music. And Apple’s latest introduction of the Apple One bundle is expected to be a key contributor to furthering service segment sales in coming years by attracting new users to pay for subscription services that they otherwise would not have had it not been for the bundle discounts.
Continued growth in market demand for mobile applications will also be a boon to Apple’s fast-growing services segment. The global market for mobile applications is expected to grow at a CAGR of 18.4% and reach a market value of more than $400 billion over the next five years. With AAPL hosting one of the largest and most used app stores in the world, it would be reasonable to assume that related revenues would grow at a similar pace. Despite mounting global regulatory scrutiny over Apple’s alleged antitrust violations with its App Store – the most notable of which stemming from an ongoing legal battle with Epic Games – the company’s continued focus on ensuring user privacy, security, and ease of transactions might have saved the day. According to a survey of 4,000 Apple product users performed by Morgan Stanley across the U.S. and China, most have indicated loyalty to Apple’s App store due to the “value of security, privacy and ease of transactions” provided, despite developers pushing for rights to transact outside of Apple’s ecosystem. Apple’s recent success in delaying App Store changes ordered by U.S. District Judge Yvonne Gonzalez Rogers in September as part of a year-long lawsuit brought against by Epic Games is another sign of the App Store’s continued strength. The company has argued that the court-mandated order to allow App Store users to “buy directly from developers on the web” would be a threat to the security of their privacy.
Currently, developers are fighting for their rights to have app users transact outside of Apple’s ecosystem, which charges developers a hefty commission fee of up to 30% on all purchases. As Apple continues with its appeal of the ruling, the ultimate court decision on whether App Store changes would need to be implemented could take at least another year. But even with an unfavorable ruling, where Apple would have to allow developers to redirect users to payments outside of its ecosystem and/or lower its in-app purchase commission rate, App Store revenues are only expected to decrease by at most $4 billion per year which will not place a material impact on its valuation prospects. The actual quantified impact might even be less than what the market has forecasted, considering the value that App Store users have ascribed to the level of security and convenience that Apple has offered through the platform.
Apple is undoubtedly a key gateway to bringing emerging technologies to the mainstream due to its massive installed base of devices and related service platform users. And because of this, the highly anticipated launch of cutting-edge products like AR/VR headsets and autonomous vehicles in coming years will likely catapult the stock to new heights. The pioneer of disruptive consumer electronics and devices is expected to launch a VR headset and AR glasses by early 2023, a nascent technology that has been picking up steam in recent months with increasing talks of the metaverse. Similar to most VR headsets already available in the market, Apple’s will feature a 3D display to enable an immersive environment for a variety of activities from gaming to communicating. The differentiating factor will be the company’s plans to implement best-in-class graphics chips in the device to facilitate ultra-high-resolution displays. The impending VR headset will ultimately lay the foundation for its AR glasses, which Apple expects to be the “larger opportunity”.
Over the next five years, opportunities pertaining to the metaverse are expected to blossom into an $800 billion market. Related software and service sales are expected to drive more than 70% of the projected addressable market, while the remainder will likely be driven by hardware sales. This makes strong tailwinds for Apple, which does not only stand to capitalize on growing metaverse opportunities through the sale of its impending AR/VR headset, but also adjacent revenues pertaining to the usage of related apps, software and service platforms.
Speculations on Apple’s ongoing development of a self-driving electric car is also expected to materialize into meaningful upsides for the stock within the foreseeable future. The company is now planning to launch the new product category by 2025, at which time the global autonomous vehicle market is expected to reach a value of more than $200 billion. The eventual car will likely feature homages to its existing product portfolio, like an “iPad-like touch screen” infotainment system. And on the technology front, Apple is believed to have completed the development of a custom silicon for powering the vehicle’s autonomous driving capabilities. The newest chips will soon be implemented into its existing fleet of retrofitted SUVs for testing in California according to the state’s DMV, a sign that the impending launch is near.
While Apple’s current market value may already be reflective of “consistent material revenue contributions from new products and services over time”, additional upsides from the above-mentioned new product category launches are still missing. But this will likely change within the next 12 months as the impending launch of an Apple AR/VR device draws near. Near-term projections on early AR/VR device sales are expected to boost Apple’s valuation by at least $150 billion. And over time when metaverse trends continue to gain mainstream traction, Apple is expected to generate more than $200 billion in annual revenues from the AR/VR segment, which could add another 15% on top of its current market value.
Adjusting our most recent forecast for Apple’s fiscal 2021 year-end results and December-quarter guidance, our base case projection estimates total net sales of $439.3 billion by the end of fiscal 2022, with further growth towards $668.5 billion by fiscal 2026. The growth assumptions applied across segment revenues in our forecast remains largely unchanged from our most recent analysis on the stock, with additional consideration for management’s near-term outlook on supply constraint impacts and the impending rate hikes. Specifically, lost revenues of $9 billion (i.e. approximately $3 billion during June-quarter and $6 billion during September-quarter) attributable to industry-wide chip shortages and pandemic-driven manufacturing delays during the second half of fiscal 2021 is expected to worsen into the first half of fiscal 2022. While there have been observed improvements to supply chain challenges, continuously robust demand for Apple products is what will drive a higher volume of lost sales in coming quarters. Nonetheless, Apple remains well-positioned for strong fundamentals ahead, which will help to alleviate some of investors’ concerns on valuation due to impending rate hikes.
i. Base Case Financial Projections:
Source: Author, with data from our internal financial forecast (Apple_-_Forecasted_Financial_Information.pdf). Please refer here for further detail on material growth assumptions applied.
Drawing on the above considerations, our 12-month price target for the Apple stock has been revised to $209.43. This represents upside potential of more than 22% based on the last traded price of $171.14 on December 17th.
Source: Author, with data from our internal valuation analysis.
The revised price target is derived using a discounted cash flow (“DCF”) analysis over a ten-year discrete period in conjunction with the financial projections updated for Apple’s recent developments as analyzed in earlier sections. Similar to our original valuation analysis, we have applied a WACC of 8% to discount Apple’s projected free cash flows. The discount function is reflective of the company’s risk profile, taking into consideration its current capital structure and strong balance sheet. Apple’s cost of capital for growth is not expected to change significantly as a result of the impending rate hikes, considering a large portion of its existing debt are fixed-rate notes. The company also boasts a consistently robust net cash position, in which management intends to deploy towards additional growth without having to incur incremental capital costs ahead of interest rate increases. This is expected to further cement investors’ confidence in the Apple stock, as they continue their “flight to quality” amidst fear of broader market pressure from rising interest rates.
The valuation analysis also assumes an exit multiple of 19.8x, which is consistent with current market expectations on Apple’s growth trajectory over the forecasted period. The applied exit multiple assumption could even improve further within the next 12 months, considering the impending launch of new product segments like AR/VR devices and autonomous vehicles, and offset any potential impacts from the upcoming increases to interest rates.
i. Base Case Valuation Analysis:
ii. Sensitivity Analysis:
Source: Author, with data from our internal valuation analysis.
Based on the foregoing analysis, the anticipated addition of 175 to 200 basis points to the current near-zero Federal Fund Rate over the next two years is not expected to cause material adverse impacts to Apple’s performance from both a fundamental and valuation perspective. Robust global demand for Apple products and services, paired with new innovations are expected to further bolster the company’s fundamental growth prospects. This would accordingly bring additional improvements to Apple’s balance sheet, and further strengthen its position against downward valuation pressures from broader macro headwinds. In fact, increasing demand for quality growth stocks to counter risks resulting from the impending rate hikes might even fuel Apple’s valuation growth momentum. On these considerations, Apple remains one of the best-performing tech stocks to own given its robust uptrend to $3 trillion in the near-term despite impending rate hikes.
This article was written by
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Disclosure: I/we have no stock, option or similar derivative position in any of the companies mentioned, and no plans to initiate any such positions within the next 72 hours. I wrote this article myself, and it expresses my own opinions. I am not receiving compensation for it (other than from Seeking Alpha). I have no business relationship with any company whose stock is mentioned in this article.