It seems like just yesterday that the Street was wondering whether Apple (NASDAQ:AAPL) could become the first company to hit a $1 trillion market cap. Actually, it was more like 2012 when Apple first crossed the $500 billion threshold. A lot has changed since then, though.
Of course, there was the massive pullback. Shares have largely recovered, though, as investor sentiment has improved. The company instituted a capital return program and then boosted it twice. Then, Apple split 7-for-1 just last month. As shares reapproach all-time highs, investors have to wonder how much longer the momentum can last.
A new Street high
Right now, the highest price target on the Street is $135. That forecast comes courtesy of JMP Securities analyst Alex Gauna. Surprisingly, Cantor Fitzgerald analyst Brian White doesn't have the same Street high, as his current price target is $111.
Gauna upgraded his rating on Apple from "market perform" to "outperform" just a day before earnings. The boost was attributed to an expectation that Apple's growth will reaccelerate later this year, combined with the potential for margin expansion. The deal with IBM will also further strengthen Apple's position in the enterprise.
Here's the important part, though. At $135 per share, Apple's market cap would be approximately $813 billion based on its post-split outstanding share count of over 6 billion.
An old Street high
It's worth noting here that back in 2012, Brian White, who was at Topeka Capital Markets at the time, was predicting that Apple would breach $1 trillion. He was modeling for $1,111 on a pre-split basis. At the time, a $1,072 price would have translated into a $1 trillion market cap.
White has a thing for repeating numbers, previously setting an $888 price target. In fact, his current $111 price target is simply a consequence of the 7-for-1 split, since he had pegged Apple at $777 right before he split. I'd love to see how his discounted cash flow models always yield targets like this.
The point here is that the Street can definitely get ahead of itself sometimes. White's call for a $1 trillion market cap hasn't come to fruition (yet). Actually, White has a pretty bad track record with both quantitative and qualitative Apple forecasts.
When market cap doesn't matter
There's another factor investors should consider with Apple's market cap: Apple's aggressive share-repurchase program. Repurchasing shares reduces outstanding shares, which similarly reduces a company's market cap. To date, Apple has repurchased $51 billion in stock.
But those repurchases have been made at varying prices over the years, so investors also need to look at the reduction in outstanding shares. At its peak in fiscal Q2 2013, Apple had 6.57 billion shares (adjusted for the split). That figure is now 6.01 billion, so Apple has retired 564 million post-split shares. At current prices, that means Apple's market cap would be about $55 billion higher if you back out the share-repurchase activity.
The Street's price targets typically have a 12-month timeframe, and it's hard to know how much Apple may repurchase in the coming year. We do know that it has almost $40 billion more in repurchase authorization, barring any additional increases.
More importantly, the race to a higher market cap is little more than a beauty pageant. Larger market caps don't equate to more value for individual shareholders. Earnings accretion driven by repurchases does. That's what investors should focus on.
Back to the future
Back to that $135 price target. It's derived from a 15-times earnings multiple on 2016's expected earnings, which implies a forecast of $9 in earnings per share for 2016. In fiscal 2013, Apple generated $5.68 in split-adjusted earnings per share. Here's how Apple's bottom line would have to play out.
Note that Apple has generated $5.03 in split-adjusted earnings per share in the first three fiscal quarters of 2014. Using Apple's guidance for the fiscal fourth quarter, the company could easily hit the midpoint of JMP's estimate. The midpoints of Apple's guidance imply net income of $7.3 billion, but the final EPS will depend heavily on Apple's repurchase activity.
Looking farther out, can Apple reach $9 in EPS within a couple of years? There are two encouraging trends. First, gross margin is proving surprisingly strong and has stabilized. Apple is expected to increase iPhone pricing with the larger models, which will also help profitability. Second, if Apple continues to aggressively repurchase stock, it will continue to juice EPS in a big way.
So long as Apple can maintain its earnings multiple without meaningful expansion or contraction, it seems that a $135 price target is within reach.
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Evan Niu, CFA, owns shares of Apple. The Motley Fool recommends Apple and owns shares of Apple and IBM. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools don't all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.