Heard much about Newmont Mining or U.S. Steel lately?
That's funny, because so far this year the stock prices of both companies have fallen by more than that of Apple, which generates saturation news coverage worthy of a Justin Bieber-Lindsay Lohan romance. In case anybody's interested, Newmont's stock is down by about 27 percent since the start of 2013, and U.S. Steel's is down by about 31 percent. Apple's is only down by about 24 percent.
But nobody really is interested, because nobody walks around with U.S. Steel gizmos in their pockets or logs into a Newmont Web site to check out the latest Alicia Keys release. A lot of people do, of course, use an iPhone every day or download songs from iTunes, which is why everybody knows that Apple has had a very rocky year.
Plus, Apple was co-founded and led by the late Steve Jobs - the rebel with a cause and quintessential baby boomer - which links the fate of the company to the prospects of an entire generation.
Apple is now dominating financial news again, after delivering a mixed earnings report to investors. Revenue and net income for the quarter ending March 31 were both higher than analyst estimates, thanks to booming sales of iPhones and iPads. Apple said it would boost dividend payments by 15 percent and repurchase a record number of shares, moves which ordinarily would firm up the sagging stock price.
But Apple's sky-high profit margins were a bit lower than expected, and CEO Tim Cook suggested future revenue could come in lower than expected as well. Cook also seemed to suggest there wouldn't be any blockbuster product announcements till the fall at least, which would mark a considerable slowdown in Apple's once formidable WOW machine.
Apple followers have become so accustomed to gargantuan profits and a breathless stream of impressive new products that mere competence seems like abject failure.
So now that we've endured another Apple earnings announcement, can we please stop obsessing over the company?
Apple's loyal fans may never admit it, but the attention paid to Apple exceeds the company's actual importance - and that's saying something, because Apple remains a huge bellwether firm. Yet Apple's fortunes no longer reflect the direction of the overall stock market or the broader economy. The S&P 500 stock index, for instance, has risen by a handsome 11 percent so far this year, with no help from Apple.
A year or two ago, when Apple's stock was soaring, commentators frequently noted that the movement in Apple's stock sometimes seemed to drive the entire market up or down. But with Apple's stock down more than 40 percent from its all-time high last September, that is clearly no longer the case.
Apple is no longer the world's most valuable company. ExxonMobil is. Nor is Apple the world's most admired company; Amazon is, according to the 2013 reputation survey by Harris Interactive. In the latest Interbrand survey, Coca-Cola, not Apple, was deemed the world's most valuable brand. Somebody ask Siri to check whether Exxon, Amazon and Coke get nearly the amount of attention Apple does.
Anybody wondering which are the biggest winners and losers in the stock market so far this year would have several names to consider other than Apple. Data provided by S&P Capital IQ shows that eight big companies included in the S&P 500 index have performed worse than Apple this year: Cliffs Natural Resources, Abbott Labs, U.S. Steel, Peabody Energy, Newmont, F5 Networks, Newfield Exploration and J.C. Penney. (If you account for dividend payments, Abbott would fall off that list.)
At some point, Apple's stock will probably recover, prompting a predictable comeback narrative. Yet Best Buy, Netflix, Avon and Safeway have bounced back far more sharply in recent months than Apple would even if its stock regained past highs. It's pretty boring, however, to hear about a supermarket chain or a cosmetic company turning itself around, so look for more parables about Apple, with obligatory references to the ghost of Steve Jobs.
For all the ink and airtime spent recently pondering Apple's fate, the basic story seems to be this: Apple was a phenom that's transitioning into a more typical colossus, with big profits but slower growth than it enjoyed as a smaller firm. For nearly a decade, Apple turned out an improbable string of hit products that would be hard for anybody to replicate. It still makes terrific products but may never again have the kind of first-mover advantage in booming new markets it did with the iPod, iPhone and iPad. It was nice while it lasted.
Google was once a company like Apple. So were Microsoft, IBM, Johnson & Johnson and General Electric. They're still pretty good companies, even if you don't hear about them as much as you once did. Consider it a sign of maturity.
Rick Newman's latest book is Rebounders: How Winners Pivot From Setback To Success. Follow him on Twitter: @rickjnewman.
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