guidance

An insightful Reuters blog by financial journalist Felix Salmon suggests that Apple’s surprisingly low share price may be due to the evolving nature of the company leaving it between two sets of investors.

Conservative investors, who like slow-growing stocks with high dividends, are constitutionally uncomfortable with the volatility inherent in the tech world. And technology investors, who are happy taking that kind of risk, want to see substantial growth. Apple, notwithstanding the fact that it’s one of the most valuable companies in the world, is falling through the capital-markets cracks.

Apple always used to be the company which surprised and delighted investors and customers alike. Its guidance to investors was deliberately pessimistic, blowing through those figures when it reported actual revenue and earnings. It was notoriously secretive about new products, launching new ones in a playful manner with Steve Jobs’ famous ‘One more thing‘ moments…

Today, the product secrecy is as tight as ever – Apple refusing to comment even on what everyone thinks they know, that it’s working on a low-cost iPhone, an HDTV and iWatch – but the guidance is newly conservative, and its plans to double capital returns to shareholders suggest a more conservative mindset.

The market is looking at Apple as a company with little room to grow. The smartphone market, at least in Apple’s traditional premium positioning in the developed world, is saturated. iPad sales have been so high it’s hard to believe they could climb much further. And Macs are almost a sideline business for the company today.

What this ignores, of course, is the new product pipeline. Apple made a deliberate decision even under Jobs’ stewardship to focus on a very small number of products, and to do those very, very well. There are lengthy gaps between new product categories. As I mentioned in my piece when the stock dropped below $400:

Apple’s innovations have never been annual events. The iPod was launched in 2001. The first iPhone was launched in 2007. The iPad in 2010.

But those still viewing Apple as a technology innovator haven’t seen anything for a while, so Salmon’s analysis makes sense. Apple’s ability to surprise the market may be somewhat dented by the longevity of the rumors if it does indeed launch the low-cost iPhone, HDTV and iWatch. In that case, the market’s view may be that it was expecting those things anyway, and those expectations are already factored into the share price.

If so, then the only thing likely to significantly boost Apple’s stock price is either the cheaper products – the low-cost iPhone and iWatch – blowing through sales forecasts, or a completely new product category that nobody outside Apple knows about. Either way, it appears we’re not going to find out anytime soon. In the earnings call, Cook said simply:

I’m just saying we’ve got really great stuff coming in the fall, and across all of 2014.