MacEdition Logo

Apple’s stock price: Bottom of the class or ahead of its time?

By Robert Barton (Feedback Form)

[Ed. Note: All specific data references are as of Apple’s 4Q FY2000 announcement, with market data as at close of trading 20 October. As at close of trading 21 November, Apple’s P/E ratio was 8.7.]

Apple’s in the doghouse as far as Wall Street is concerned. Out of the entire S&P 500 index, Apple has the 144th-worst price-earnings ratio (P/E), the 32nd-worst year-ended price change, and the 14th-worst price change from its 52-week high. Adjusted for market capitalisation, it’s in the bottom 10 percent on P/E and bottom 5 percent on the two price measures.

Now maybe this makes sense. The stock market has been completely overblown for years, particular for tech stocks. As the editor of this Web site recently pointed out, sometimes it seems that shares were treated as assets in themselves, instead of simply representing part ownership of a company. But a share is nothing more than the right to a portion of the residual cashflow of a company. After the workers have got their wages and the suppliers their fees, after the creditors have all been paid and the government taken its tax remittances, what’s left over belongs to the shareholders. How you value that share depends on what you think will happen to net profits in the future. That’s a hard calculation. But it is the calculation you should do. Not hit rates, not churn, and not number of customers. Profits.

In recent years, people forgot this fundamental fact. In the new economy, they said, you could throw out the old rulebook, because the computer nerds have invented new ones. So naïve day traders and dupes looking to get rich quick hopped onto their investor message boards and into tech stocks trading at sky-high earnings multiples. In the short run, some of them even made money. They bought shares in the belief they would rise in price later. Enough people believed this, and bought shares. The increased demand raised the price as they expected, so they made a profit, but then they had to get out again to realise the profit. They had to flick-pass the share to some other dupe. In the industry, this is known as the “Greater Fool Theory” – that is, that there will always be a greater fool than you on whom you can unload your overvalued stock. This may be true for you, but it can’t be true for everyone. At some stage, things are going to come unstuck; that’s what we are seeing now.

But if the market has to come down to restore sensible valuations, and price-earnings ratios have to fall, is 11 and a bit the right ratio for Apple?

Future profits are what matters in determining fundamental share prices. To work out that price, you need the present discounted value formula out of the Corporate Finance 101 textbook. It’s really an integral of the exponential function, but for a constant discount factor and a constant rate of profits growth, it comes out as the very neat and tidy formula:

1/(rg)

where r is the discount rate and g is the growth rate for profits. For example, if profits grew by 2 percent a year, and the discount rate was 5 percent a year, then the appropriate price for shares in that company would be just over 33 times current earnings. In the long run, total profits growth should be the same as growth in the economy. Otherwise, the corporate sector would either get bigger than the whole economy, which is impossible, or shrink to nothingness, which is nuts. A rough figure for US trend economic growth, excluding inflation, is about 2.5 percent, so let’s say 4.5 percent including inflation for long-run average growth in profits. (Strictly speaking, this should all be in terms of dividends, but most analysts use earnings instead, on the grounds that all earnings come back to the shareholders eventually as dividends or through a buyback, even if only after a long time.)

Apple and the S&P 500
As of 20 October 2000
 AppleMedianWeighted Mean
Price-earnings ratio 11.2129.1652.63
Year-ended price change (%) -49.617.73 38.12
Price change from 52-week high (%) -74.8 -17.95 -23.29

Of course, these calculations depend on the number you pick for your discount rate. Most people start with a government bond rate, then add a bit for risk, because private companies are more risky creditors than the government. The size of that risk adjustment is a matter of passionate debate, but let’s be optimistic and only add a few percentage points, which brings us to 8 or 9 percent. (You could adjust for inflation, but you would also have to adjust your expected profits growth number (g). The adjustments would cancel and you would get the same P/E.) But with a discount rate of 9 percent, a P/E of 11.2 implies profits will be essentially unchanged in dollar terms, forever. If your discount rate was lower, like most “new economy” boosters think applies now, then a P/E around 11 implies profits that fall forever.

There are other ways you can get a P/E around 11.2: assume profits are going to fall sharply for a while and grow after that, or assume that the company is going to fold after a few years, so you are only adding up profits over a finite period. But to make the numbers add up, you need to make some extreme assumptions about the initial falls. For example, with g=4.5% and r=9%, one way to get a P/E of around 11.2 is assume profits fall 13 percent a year for six years in a row, before reverting to g=4.5%, and then the company folds after 20 years.

That’s nowhere near the profit outlook that analysts have been suggesting, which is two quarters of softness, not twenty-four. The median price-earnings ratio is currently around 29.2 – that is, half of the market capitalisation in the S&P 500 is in companies with a P/E higher than that figure. Assuming the underlying riskiness of stocks is the same for all companies, they all face the same discount rate and long-run rate of economic growth. So either the market is massively overvalued, or Apple is undervalued. If 11.2 is the right P/E for Apple, then as a simple matter of arithmetic, the rest of the market must be massively overblown and heading for a correction of its own.

That, or the company is heading for an imminent demise.

Maybe that’s what some of the traders who dumped Apple in October really believe. Or maybe Apple is just correcting from the general market’s overvaluation and the rest of the market will correct in the near future. But right now, Apple looks undervalued relative to history, undervalued relative to the rest of the current market, and undervalued relative to its industry peers. In the current environment, that’s no guarantee it will recover. But it makes clear that Apple has been punished for its recent soft profitability, and punished by more than some others in a similar situation.

Robert Barton (not his real name) is an economist at a financial institution with an international presence. His opinions are not those of his employer. Neither Mr Barton nor his employer trades in Apple shares. This article should not be construed as financial advice.

E-mail this story to a friend