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Is Apple in real trouble in 2019?

Apple stock finished 2018 down 8.5%. It was the second-worst performer of the FAANG names.

The biggest story was iPhone sales whiffing in the fourth quarter of 2018: 46.9 million units sold versus an expected 48.4 million. In the same report, Apple announced it would no longer share unit sales in its earnings reports.

It was not the brightest year in recent memory for the tech giant. On the other hand, this is Apple we’re talking about. The company’s biggest flag-wavers dismiss with a laugh any notion of legitimate macro concerns for Apple moving forward.

So, has Apple really lost its bite?

Apple CEO Tim Cook speaks during an event to announce new products Tuesday Oct. 30, 2018, in the Brooklyn borough of New York. (AP Photo/Bebeto Matthews)
Apple CEO Tim Cook speaks at an Apple event to announce new products on Oct. 30, 2018, at Brooklyn Academy of Music in New York. (AP/Bebeto Matthews)

Dan Roberts: Yes, there are legitimate concerns about Apple

Apple bulls can’t keep repeating the same basic “The king stay the king” argument (see: HBO’s “The Wire”) forever. That was the thinking people applied to Facebook, and it expired in 2018. Even Jeff Bezos told his employees this year, “Amazon will fail one day.”

Sure, Apple is one of the world’s most admired brands—but for how much longer? Not for long if it keeps disappointing the market.

Here were the events (and non-events) in 2018 that add up to a strong bear case against Apple for 2019:

  • In February, Apple began shipping the HomePod, its underwhelming late entry into the smart speaker market. The device has disappointed, and its starting price of $350 was downright laughable to some analysts, like Boris Schlossberg of BK Asset Management, who told CNBC, “They're basically betting on the fact that high expensive products can be sold at this point and it's clearly becoming evident that everybody has caught up to them in the marketplace.”

  • Where are the new products? Apple hasn’t launched a completely new device since 2015, when it launched the first generation Apple Watch. Its future growth certainly won’t be driven by wearables. (And don’t say AirPod wireless headphones count on the level of its other iconic devices.) Instead, Apple bulls now focus on services. But this was once a company known for its splashy, sexy hardware launches. It’s the iconic maker of the iMac, iPod, iPad and iPhone. Where’s the innovation now? The world is waiting for the next big Apple device and incremental updates (and price hikes) to the iPhone and iPad won’t cut it.

  • Meanwhile, competitor phones like the Google Pixel 3 are finally getting good enough to lure away some iPhone devotees.

  • Apple is locked in an ugly legal battle with Qualcomm.

  • Apple faces major headwinds in China amid President Donald Trump’s trade war. Twenty percent of its revenue comes from China, which makes it more vulnerable to tariff troubles than its big tech peers.

  • A slew of Apple component suppliers slashed forecasts in the fall amid disappointing iPhone sales: Lumentum, Qorvo, Japan Display, and AMS all slashed sales forecasts, a parade of bad indicators for Apple.

  • Amid softening iPhone demand, bank after bank after bank downgraded Apple stock.

  • Apple made matters worse in November by announcing it will no longer break out quarterly unit sales data for its devices, a move that Yahoo Finance’s Brian Sozzi correctly roasted. D.A. Davidson analyst Tom Forte called the decision a “red flag” on Yahoo Finance’s Midday Movers live show: “Generally speaking, when a company isn’t going to give you a data point, that’s a bad data point.”

Look, of course Apple isn’t going anywhere. Many of us are used to using strictly Apple computing devices (me included) and are afraid to wean ourselves off the Apple ecosystem. But many consumers and investors now think it’s time to do just that.

Apple will see more dark clouds in the next 12 months. Unless it has a hardware trick up its sleeve or makes a big surprise acquisition, 2019 could be its worst year in a long time.

F.A.A.N.G. stocks (FB, AAPL, AMZN, NFLX, GOOGL) in 2018.
F.A.A.N.G. stocks (FB, AAPL, AMZN, NFLX, GOOGL) in 2018.

Brian Sozzi: Calm down, Apple will be just fine

Never forget that Apple was the first trillion-dollar company on planet Earth.

That shouldn’t be taken lightly even as Apple finds its market cap hovering at $760 billion after 2018. Sure, Wall Street loves itself a great tech growth story. The argument could be made that Apple is now the complete opposite.

But to fathom that Apple is barreling toward a dystopian future where Samsung steals all iPhone users and employees in Cupertino, Calif. forget how to innovate is foolish.

Apple remains a beast of an entity. Apple’s stock will probably return to being a beast long before not.

Forget what makes Apple such a unique story? Here’s a tidy list.

  • Warren Buffett is the second-largest individual shareholder in Apple. If the greatest investor of our time is an Apple believer, who are you to argue?

  • Apple has about $250 billion in cash, and growing. The company has said its goal is to return all of its cash to shareholders via buybacks and dividends. Expect a juicy dividend hike in 2019.

  • Apple has an insanely strong management team and board. Tim Cook was handpicked by CEO predecessor Steve Jobs. Former CEO of Burberry Angela Ahrendts jumped ship to lead Apple’s retail store network. Disney CEO Bob Iger sits on Apple’s board, as does former Vice President Al Gore.

  • The installed base of iPhones is by some estimates currently 1.5 billion. That’s a huge captive audience to sell services (cloud, apps, etc.) to.

  • Apple is investing billions of dollars to open a new Austin, Tex. headquarters and data centers across the country. Apple is building an army of the best minds in America. Why bet against that?

  • Apple has a strong, unmatched presence in schools globally. So the company is bringing people into its ecosystem early.

Daniel Roberts is a senior writer at Yahoo Finance. Brian Sozzi is an editor-at-large at Yahoo Finance. Follow @readDanwrite and @BrianSozzi.

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