Shares of technology giant Apple (AAPL 1.56%) soared in 2021. As of Dec. 30, the stock had gained 34% in 2021. This put the market cap at more than $2.9 trillion.
While many recent headlines about the company have focused on its market capitalization approaching $3 trillion, investors might be wise to consider an even more bullish target: $4 trillion. Indeed, a close look at the stock suggests that a $4 trillion market cap could be within reach for the tech company in the near future -- possibly even within 2022.
The path to $4 trillion
A close look at Apple stock's conservative valuation and the company's broad-based momentum makes a good case for shares being undervalued today, setting the stage for a potential $4 trillion market capitalization in 2022.
The first way Apple stock could gain is simply through expansion in its valuation multiple. Some megacap stocks trade at substantially higher multiples relative to their free cash flow (FCF) than Apple does. If Apple can close the gap and command a similar premium, multiple expansion alone could help the stock rise substantially.
Consider that Microsoft (MSFT 1.50%) trades at 42 times its free cash flow. Apple, meanwhile, trades at only 31 times its FCF. Apple's stock price would have to rise 35% for its FCF valuation multiple to match Microsoft's. This alone would put the company's market capitalization at about $4 trillion.
There is actually a good case for Apple stock's valuation to see multiple expansion in the coming years: The tech giant's services business, which is a more reliable revenue source than its products, is growing as a percentage of Apple's total business. With a more predictable and reliable revenue source (that appears to still have lots of upside) increasingly driving Apple's growth, investors may start rewarding the stock with higher valuation multiples. In fiscal 2021, Apple's services revenue was 19% of revenue, up from less than 18% of revenue two years ago and 15% three years ago.
But even without this much multiple expansion, strong fundamentals could lift Apple shares meaningfully in 2022 and beyond. Consider that the company is seeing strong double-digit revenue growth recently, with record fiscal fourth-quarter revenue across every geographic and product segment. Specifically, Apple's fiscal fourth-quarter revenue came in at $83.4 billion, up from $64.7 billion in the year-ago quarter. But management estimates that revenue for the period would have been $6 billion higher if it weren't for supply constraints during the period.
Suffice to say, Apple's business is firing on all cylinders. With momentum in every geographic and product segment, it wouldn't be surprising to see double-digit growth rates in the company's revenue and free cash flow in fiscal 2022, providing solid substance for more share gains.
Expect a bumpy ride
While it is possible that Apple's market capitalization swells to $4 trillion before the end of 2022, there are no guarantees in investing. Even if everything goes well for Apple as a business, the stock itself could do poorly in the near term. Sometimes, for one reason or another, stocks fall in and out of favor. So even though shares appear undervalued today, the stock could fall before it rises.
And there's always a chance that Apple sees multiple compression instead of multiple expansion. While Apple's business fundamentals appear worthy of a Microsoft-like premium, the company's shares have usually traded at a discount to Microsoft's in terms of valuation multiples because Microsoft's business model is considered to be more sustainable and less dependent on blockbuster product hits like new iPhones. Apple notably also makes more than half of its sales from a single product: the iPhone. Its heavy reliance on a single product segment generally makes Wall Street view the stock as risker than Microsoft, which has a business primarily made up of recurring revenue from various software and services sources.
But given Apple's long history of pricing power, loyal customers, and an ability to bring to market products in entirely new categories every now and then, the tech company will likely keep succeeding -- and its market cap could march toward $4 trillion.