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Is betting against Apple in 2016 a foolish thing?

Andy Serwer
Editor in Chief
Is betting against Apple in 2016 a foolish thing?

Trying to figure out where Apple’s (AAPL) headed is a fool’s errand. This is the most successful company on the planet, and it got there and stays there by out-thinking everybody else. Part of that strategy is not letting the rest of us know its plans ahead of time. Yes, there was the genius of Steve Jobs, but since his death in October of 2011, the stock has doubled—so Tim Cook deserves credit too.

Conventional wisdom says Apple is now at a crossroads. The company is so reliant on the iPhone—on track to sell some 231 million units this year, generating roughly 63% of its revenue and likely even more of its profit—that it has become vulnerable. Morgan Stanley’s Katy Huberty recently predicted sales of the iPhone—arguably the most successful consumer product of all time—will fall in 2016 for the first year ever. (Context alert #1: Apple shipped just 1.4 million phones in year one, 2007.) Of course, the market has taken notice of Apple’s unnerving position. AAPL, which peaked at $132 in May, has now sagged to $106—an 18% drop while the market has dipped about 6%. Not exactly market leadership there.

Meanwhile, Apple’s price-to-earnings ratio has dropped to 11.56—down from 17.93 in February according to YCharts—significantly below its five-year average of 14.31. (Context alert #2: The P/E was as high as 21.49 in December of 2010.) That low P/E is telling you the market is showing little faith in Cook & Co.'s ability to drive earnings higher. So Apple is either a buying opportunity or a value trap. (Context alert #3: Apple’s P/E ratio is way lower than any of its AFANA cohort. [Alphabet: 32, Facebook: 105, Netflix: 308, Amazon: 948.])

All Apple needs to do is: A) Keep iPhone sales up, and/or B) Find other sources of revenue. Both will be tough. Growing phone sales by 10% for instance—or 23 million units—is more than all the phones the company sold in 2009. And consumers seem to have been holding back from upgrading older iPhones, (though you could see that as an opportunity). Sales in China doubled recently, and the company continues to rely on that huge albeit now slower-growing economy. While Apple has upside to the iPhone 6, at some point soon it will need to add significant new features or some kind of new phone. Bottom line, I think the company can achieve this and that any weakness in iPhone sales could well be priced in the stock.

As for other sources of revenue, well, let us count the ways: The Watch, Music, TV, Apps, even an Applemobile (and of course magical products still percolating in Jony Ive’s mind) are all candidates to mitigate any slowdown in the iPhone business. The problem is the iPhone is such a juggernaut that for now all of those businesses collectively go nowhere near matching the iPhone.

Apple's size scares investors, too. At $600 billion, it sports the largest market cap in the world (Alphabet is now #2), and you wonder just how much bigger the company can grow.

Not a single iota of this is news to Tim Cook and his management team, who of course are relentlessly focused on A) the phone and, B) old and new products. I have no idea what they are cooking (!) up, and I have no idea whether they will succeed—certainly they’ll flub some stuff. But one mistake people always make about Apple is to look at the company as static -- in other words, what the company is today, is what it will be in the future. In fact, Apple has always changed and grown.

And surprised! According to NASDAQ, Apple has beaten the consensus earnings estimate four quarters in a row. In its first quarter last calendar year (ending 12/24/14) the company was expected to make $2.60 per share, and it actually made $3.06. In the quarter that Apple is set to report in the end of January, analysts are looking for $3.26. Yes, comps will be tough in 2016, so we shall see. (Context alert #3: Over the long haul, analysts believe the company will show earnings growth of over 12%, according to Zacks.)

One last point: I own four Apple devices on which I am constantly rotating throughout the day. Despite my frustration with some of Apple’s software, I’m never more than a foot away from one of them, day and night, except when I’m in the shower. As for my family, it seems like I'm always buying either an iPhone or MacBook for one of my two daughters every birthday or Christmas. I don’t see any end in sight to this trend. That’s good news for Apple.

I don’t know what Apple’s doing next, and yes, there’s a bit of a leap of faith here, but I wouldn’t bet against them. That might be a fool’s errand, too.