Disruptive technology and large companies seldom go hand in hand. Sitting on its perch as the world's largest publicly traded company, tech giant Apple (NASDAQ:AAPL) is, however, hopefully synonymous with disruption.
From helping kick-start the PC revolution to ushering in more recent revolutions in digital media and consumer electronics, Apple has played a central role in upending a whole host of industries during the years. And although some people -- myself included -- question the Apple Watch's near-term disruptive abilities, its recent release will likely sway the workings of the worldwide watch industry in years to come, as one recent survey helped reiterate.
As the Apple Watch continues to gain popularity, could its industry-wide effects make short candidates out of some watchmaker giants, like The Swatch Group SA (OTC:SWGAY) and Richemont? Let's take a look.
Crumbling morale in the Swiss watch industry
Recently, a survey from global consultancy Deloitte suggested that the Apple Watch, and the broader rise of smartwatches as a device category, are indeed looming large in the eyes of the Swiss watchmaking elite. In polling 50 different executives from various Swiss watchmaking companies, the survey found that sentiment within the industry has reached its lowest point since Deloitte began the poll in 2012.
Specifically, Deloitte found that 41% of those polled held a negative view about the industry's prospects during the year versus just 14% with a favorable outlook. This reflects a meaningful shift in sentiment within the industry during the past two-plus years. At the start of 2013, the same Deloitte survey reported a roughly 65% optimistic outlook, and just a 15% negative viewpoint among respondents.
Among negative factors, reduced spending on luxury items among the Chinese elite meaningfully factored into the industry's pessimism. However, the outsized strength of the Swiss franc was the most-cited potential headwind among Swiss watchmakers, with 69% of those polled citing their domestic currency as the greatest risk to the industry during the next year.
In looking at the effect of smartwatches specifically, the number of executives who reported seeing the new device class as a competitive threat also rose to 25% this year from 11% at the same time last year. This is, perhaps, the best evidence of growing consternation about the competitive threat that smartwatches pose to their mechanical brethren. But is it enough evidence to merit a possible short thesis?
The Apple Watch an unlikely direct threat
For starters, let's remember that shorting stocks, or more technically borrowing shares in an attempt to profit from a stock's decline, carries greater risks than outright stock investing. As such, it should only be pursued by those with knowledge and experience. That being said, I still don't know if I see a meaningful enough impact on watchmakers, especially in the near term, from devices like the Apple Watch to merit a short.
To me, their luxury status, reputation for craftsmanship, and robust set of brands should help publicly traded Swiss watchmakers like The Swatch Group SA and Richemont remain insulated from potential disruption from smartwatches like the Apple Watch. For starters, while luxury watchmakers like Swatch and Richemont each own luxury timepiece brands like Omega (Swatch) and Cartier (Richemont), the two companies also enjoy exposure to other luxury-goods verticals like jewelry, as well as high-end clothing. They aren't watch-specific companies necessarily.
Perhaps more importantly, though, the motivating factors driving purchases of smartwatches and luxury timepieces likely differ enough to shield the Swiss watch industry from serious disruption at the hands of the Apple Watch. Say what you will about the logic here, but a consumer who's willing to spend into the thousands of dollars on a timepiece, where the primary task can be done equally well by a $5 Timex, is clearly being driven by other motivations.
The brand power -- i.e., I own a Rolex -- carries considerable more value than the tasks the watch itself can perform. Under this line of reasoning, less premium watch brands like Fossil Group seem like more accurate candidates to face disruption from the rise of the Apple Watch.
While the Deloitte study cited above indicates growing pessimism within the ranks of the Swiss watchmaking elite, I wouldn't consider shorting names like The Swatch Group of Richemont because of the Apple Watch's recent emergence.