While Apple (NASDAQ:AAPL) shares followed the basic pattern of the overall market last week -- falling sharply on Monday and battling back on well-received remarks from Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke -- technology is often thought of as existing outside of the classic economic pressures. Think of it as the last, and essentially invisible, divide between the old economy and the new economy. Given this divide, you must ask yourself if it remains a legitimate point of differentiation, or if it may be the source of some investment mistakes, particularly as companies mature.
One of the reasons for this disconnection is that consumers have essentially inelastic demand for smartphones. No matter how bad things may get, you are going to find a way to keep your iPhone running. This does not mean that Apple can rest on past successes. CEO Tim Cook somewhat startled investors when he said that the company was "looking" at new product segments, which might signal that Apple has reached a certain level of maturity that requires more attention to be paid to macroeconomic influences. Or it could mean that Cook is being coy before the company goes to market with a big release.
Big Ben chimes in Congress
When Bernanke testified last week before the House Financial Services Committee, he made it abundantly clear that despite the voices of dissent as to current Fed policy, the country's monetary policy was not about to be altered. Since last December, the Fed has more explicitly tied interest rates and quantitative easing measures to the employment rate and inflation. While members of the Federal Open Market Committee have publicly commented that perhaps the Fed should alter its course, Bernanke claims the stimulus measures are working and will continue.
What does this have to do with Apple?
One of the biggest and most germane criticisms of Apple is that it does not have a sufficiently comprehensive emerging-markets strategy. This is the complicated way to say that the company is missing out on a lot of potentially critical sales by not releasing a cheap iPhone that can attract purchasers in areas where a full-priced iPhone 5 is simply out of reach. This means that Apple is particularly dependent on sales in the U.S. and Europe, although China is becoming increasingly critical and is likely to become the most important market in the future.
To bring this back to the Fed, if the economy goes into a tailspin, Apple will likely be affected more than Google and more than not-at-all. The reach of Android into the low-end market means that the sale of Android phones is less affected by a recession. Emerging-market economies would be affected by a U.S. recession much differently than Europe or even China. Since Apple is so reliant on sales to the consumers of developed nations, it has greater exposure to a recession.
The common retort to this concern is that the recent numbers speak for themselves sufficiently to demonstrate that Apple will not be driven by the general direction of the economy. The problem with this position is twofold. First, the mature smartphone market, while still growing, is becoming closer to saturated. The growth rate differential between the mature market and the emerging market is significant.
The second issue to consider is that while the U.S. economy has been "improving," if Friday's sequestration cuts are not quickly addressed, the impact for the economy could be severe. The Congressional Budget Office estimated that the cuts could cost as many as 1.4 million jobs. This means that while the blind devotion people have to their smartphones may not change, they may be less willing to maintain an accelerated upgrade cycle. When you are concerned you may lose your job or earn less money, you are less likely to buy a new smartphone every year when the old one works just fine.
Apple's on notice
The Fed's continued policy of quantitative easing, one that Bernanke made clear was well in place, will likely prove a major contributing factor to the inflation that is coming. There may be no "inflation," but things sure seem to cost more than they used to -- food and gas being highest on that list. Gas at $4 and $3 milk could easily mean my iPhone 4S stays in my pocket an extra year. The perceived immunity that tech has to the Fed is an illusion and Apple shareholders should be pushing for more emerging market activity.