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Is Apple a Buy or a Bye Under $500?

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Unless you were sleeping under a rock today -- or a cobweb-riddled copy of Windows 98 -- you know that Apple (NASDAQ: AAPL  ) dipped below $500 this morning.

It's a scary round milestone. Apple hasn't traded under $500 since February of last year. The world's most valuable tech company came close to buckling in November and December, but apparently the third month is the charm.

Is Apple a screaming value or is $400 the next meaty milestone that the stock will hit on the way down?

Let's take a look at the bearish and bullish arguments for Apple here.

The "bye" argument
Apple has given back 11 months of gains, but worrywarts will argue that it's warranted. This isn't the same Apple that was on the rise a year ago.

Today's Apple is losing market share to Google's (NASDAQ: GOOGL  ) Android and has fallen short on the bottom line in the past two quarters.

The catalyst for today's drop is a Wall Street Journal report claiming that orders to Apple's iPhone 5 screen suppliers have been cut roughly in half this quarter. If accurate -- and the typically reliable financial publication is leaning on two different yet naturally unnamed sources -- it confirms that global demand for Apple's smartphone is waning.

Apple's iPhone 5 may not seem so expensive in this country, where wireless carriers shell out hundreds in subsidies to bring the price down to a competitive $199 per handset. However, in most overseas markets where prices start at $700 to $800 for unsubsidized iPhones, Android smarpthones selling for a third or half of that price will do just fine.

Apple's options aren't very compelling here. It can hold firm on prices, letting Android's global market share continue to expand. It can cut prices, sacrificing its industry-envying profit margins along the way for the sake of maintaining its relevancy. Apple can also introduce a cheaper iPhone -- as many have speculated -- but that will come with the same balancing act as the iPad mini where the price may still be too high or the reputation may suffer if too many features are removed to get to a competitive price point.

If you buy into the bearish argument, Apple has peaked. We're living in Google's Android world now, and Apple may have to keep an eye on the rearview mirror to make sure that Windows or the refreshed BlackBerry 10 doesn't challenge it for a fading second place.

It's not just about price, either. The open nature of Android -- and the closed nature of Apple -- finds the tastemakers of tech siding with Google's platform. When Baidu (NASDAQ: BIDU  ) decided to introduce its own smartphone platform, it didn't bother to reinvent the wheel. China's leading search engine based its mobile operating system on Android. (NASDAQ: AMZN  ) made waves with the Kindle Fire tablet two years ago, but that too is just a modified version of Android that plays nicely with many existing Android applications.

Analysts are siding on the "bye" side of the fence, slashing Apple's near-term earnings potential. Wall Street's profit target for Apple in this fiscal year has fallen from $53.44 a share to $48.67 a share in just the past three months. The outlook for fiscal 2014, which kicks in come October, has had a similar makeover. Analysts have gone from forecasting net income of $60.94 a share three months ago to $57.07 a share today.

The "buy" argument
The only thing that has fallen faster than Apple's profit targets is its actual share price. The end result is that Apple at $500 is now valued at just 10.3 times this fiscal year's projected net income and a mere 8.8 times next year's estimate.

The multiples get lower once you factor in Apple's more than $120 billion in cash and marketable securities.

The fears that estimates will continue to whittle lower and that the same Apple that used to routinely beat analyst estimates will keep falling short are reasonable. That's the trend. It's hard to argue otherwise until the trend is reversed.

However, don't underestimate Apple's history of innovation. It's been known to raise the bar, just when it seems as if its products couldn't move the needle yet again.

Here are a few other morsels for bulls to enjoy as they lick their wounds.

  • Apple already has a massive share buyback authorized for this fiscal year, and buying now makes too much sense.
  • The stock's drop has pushed the yield to a savings-thumping 2.1%. Google, Amazon, and Baidu -- tech darlings mentioned earlier -- are Nil City in the yield department. Sure, Microsoft's (NASDAQ: MSFT  ) 3.4% is far more generous, but let's not pretend that Apple is growing in the single digits the way that Mr. Softy is these days. Analysts still see double-digit growth for the class act of Cupertino.
  • Apple is the richest company in tech. Don't assume that it won't spend its way to acquire growth, especially if a fade in iOS makes it easier to clear regulatory hurdles for acquisitions.
  • Between the inevitable TVs and larger speculative dreams for Apple wristwatches and automobiles, this isn't the end of Apple.

Perhaps most importantly, everybody loved Apple at $700 in September. Everybody hates Apple at $500 now. Do the math. It may pay to be a contrarian here. 

Read/Post Comments (5) | Recommend This Article (2)

Comments from our Foolish Readers

Help us keep this a respectfully Foolish area! This is a place for our readers to discuss, debate, and learn more about the Foolish investing topic you read about above. Help us keep it clean and safe. If you believe a comment is abusive or otherwise violates our Fool's Rules, please report it via the Report this Comment Report this Comment icon found on every comment.

  • Report this Comment On January 14, 2013, at 8:11 PM, LazyCapitalist wrote:

    "Apple already has a massive share buyback authorized for this fiscal year, and buying now makes too much sense."

    Isn't Apple's buyback in place primarily to offset stock options?

  • Report this Comment On January 14, 2013, at 8:18 PM, BWalker20 wrote:

    I just wanna point out that i dont think this part is that accurate.

    "Apple's iPhone 5 may not seem so expensive in this country, where wireless carriers shell out hundreds in subsidies to bring the price down to a competitive $199 per handset. However, in most overseas markets where prices start at $700 to $800 for unsubsidized iPhones"

    Nearly all countries networks/carriers will susidise the cost of the phone when joining a contract with them. I thought it was known that US mobile plans and phones are more expensive than most western countires, especially Europe. On my carrier i can get the iPhone 5 for $75on a $60/month unlimited everything plan.

  • Report this Comment On January 14, 2013, at 10:08 PM, TimKnows wrote:

    No one cares about prior earnings, we care about future revenues, margins, unit sales and all of these benchmarks, Apple is failing. Why? They fired top staff, don't innovate any more and their OS is old and boring. Do you really think we parked at $ 500 today to go up?

  • Report this Comment On January 15, 2013, at 12:52 AM, kthor wrote:

    will test $450 range .... love those weeklies!

  • Report this Comment On January 15, 2013, at 5:59 PM, sheldonross wrote:

    "Nearly all countries networks/carriers will susidise the cost of the phone when joining a contract with them."

    citation needed.

    I was under the impression - and this article reiterates - that most countries do not contract subsidize phones. Most of Europe is month to month(prepaid here) and do not use 2 year contracts like the states.

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Rick Munarriz

Rick has been writing for Motley Fool since 1995 where he's a Consumer and Tech Stocks Specialist. Yes, that's a long time. He's been an analyst for Motley Fool Rule Breakers and a portfolio lead analyst for Motley Fool Supernova since each newsletter service's inception. He earned his BBA and MBA from the University of Miami, and he now lives a block from his alma mater.

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