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Sell Apple? Buy Microsoft? Never!

By Rick Munarriz - Updated Apr 6, 2017 at 10:28PM

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It's so trendy to bet against Apple these days that the tech giant has become fashionably contrarian.

Apple (Nasdaq: AAPL) is getting robbed!

The class of Cupertino got off to a bad start this week, with Nasdaq OMX Group (Nasdaq: NDAQ) deciding to rebalance its popular Nasdaq 100 composite for the first time since the dot-com-bubble days. Apple, which had grown to make up more than a fifth of the entire index, will be whittled down to a 12.3% sliver next month. A thinner slice for Apple naturally means more pie to go around elsewhere. Other big bellwethers will see their weightings more than double, with Microsoft (Nasdaq: MSFT) in particular going from 3.4% to 8.3% of the composite.

The rebalancing makes sense on paper. Indices including the Dow Jones Industrial Average that are based on share price -- and not on market caps, as the weighted S&P 500 is -- can grow out of whack if left unattended.

Having Apple at 20.5% and Microsoft at 3.4% may be a sound approach for a money manager during the Lost Decade, but it's not realistic for an index. Microsoft commands roughly two-thirds of Apple's market cap. Google, with a lower market cap and enterprise value than Microsoft, shouldn't have a bigger impact on the Nasdaq 100, the way it does right now.

I get the method behind the math-ness. I'm just not sure why investors are bailing on Apple. Shares have fallen in six straight trading day sessions.

Sellers are making a colossal mistake.

Microsoft and Dell aren't the next Apple
Greg Estes, portfolio manager of the Intrepid All Cap Fund, made some bold market calls on Yahoo! Finance's Breakout webcast last week. He thinks that Apple, after a monstrous run in recent years, is overvalued. He believes that Microsoft and Dell (Nasdaq: DELL), after years of disappointing investors, are the tech giants to buy now.

A few weeks ago, Estes would've been considered a contrarian. Today he may as well be tagged as trendy.

He's also likely to be wrong.

If I had a nickel for every value investor who thought Microsoft and Dell could regain their former glory, you wouldn't want to stand in line behind me at the corner Coinstar machine.

Apple is cheap, folks. Microsoft and Dell, well, are not.

Microsoft and Dell were great in the 1990s, but so were Third Eye Blind and Ace of Base. You can't just take a decade off and become relevant again, especially in technology, where retro is never chic.

Dell rocked when companies and consumers were introducing PCs into their offices and homes for the first time, but Michael Dell's dorm-room disruptor is a few cycles behind these days. It missed the netbook craze of 2009. It largely slept through the tablet and smartphone craze of 2010 -- and those are the portable devices with enough legs to define the computing movement for the next year or two, at least.

Dell is no dummy. It has dramatically shaved overhead in recent years. It's following IBM (NYSE: IBM) and now Hewlett-Packard (NYSE: HPQ) by moving toward higher-margin enterprise services and making tactically sound acquisitions. A global economic recovery should also help hardware sales, but this will never be the same market darling it was during its remarkable run on the other side of the millennium.

Microsoft is on a brighter trajectory than Dell, but it's no superstar. I realize that the world's largest software company is a popular recommendation in some of our newsletters, but I don't share the same level of enthusiasm. The same smartphone and tablet trends that are reinventing the computing experience are diminishing the value of premium operating systems and applications. There's still near-term upside on the server side, but Microsoft continues to lose money through its online business. Its recent success on the video-game front will never generate the profitability needed to offset the eventual shortcomings in its bread-and-butter software.

If there's a scenario where Microsoft or Dell will be more relevant in five years than it is right now, I have yet to hear it.

Taking a bite out of Apple
After Apple's brilliant tear through the otherwise Lost Decade, it's easy to assume that the shares are richly valued.

They're not. Apple is now fetching less than 15 times this fiscal year's profit target -- and less than 13 times next year's analyst estimate. Apple has been routinely trouncing Wall Street's quarterly profit expectations for years, so Apple is probably even cheaper than these forward P/Es in the low teens. The valuations get down into the pre-teens if we strip out Apple's nearly $60 billion in cash and marketable securities.

How is this expensive? It's only a stiff ransom if growth is about to fall off a cliff -- the way it did for Dell and, to a lesser extent, Microsoft. Does anyone really see Apple selling fewer iPads, iPhones, and Macs in the near term?

Maybe Apple will have that Dell Moment. Maybe we'll get to a point where the disruptor is disrupted. Google's Android is gaining in smartphone popularity. Apple's iPod sales have been sluggish. Years of the ballyhooed halo effect still find Apple commanding a thin slice of the desktop and laptop markets. Apple TV has been a bit of a dud.

Nobody's saying Apple is perfect. It just happens to be less imperfect -- and more attractively priced -- than Microsoft or Dell.

It's true, even if truthfulness is no longer trendy.

Follow all the Fool's coverage of Apple, Microsoft, and Dell by adding them to My Watchlist. Just follow the links.  

This article represents the opinion of the writer, who may disagree with the “official” recommendation position of a Motley Fool premium advisory service. We’re motley! Questioning an investing thesis – even one of our own – helps us all think critically about investing and make decisions that help us become smarter, happier, and richer.

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Stocks Mentioned

HP Inc. Stock Quote
HP Inc.
$37.64 (3.24%) $1.18
Microsoft Corporation Stock Quote
Microsoft Corporation
$329.49 (-0.18%) $0.59
Apple Inc. Stock Quote
Apple Inc.
$163.76 (-0.61%) $-1.01
Dell Technologies Inc. Stock Quote
Dell Technologies Inc.
Nasdaq, Inc. Stock Quote
Nasdaq, Inc.
$201.23 (1.10%) $2.20
International Business Machines Corporation Stock Quote
International Business Machines Corporation
$116.90 (-0.02%) $0.02

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