Apple (NASDAQ:AAPL), to its credit, is as much of a cult for its customers as it is for its shareholders. And that’s a plus for the company. Its customers have been very sticky, meaning that they continue to buy and own their iPhones remaining inside Apple World and all of the content and apps that run through iTunes.
And these same customers fawn over the annual product presentations and even line up at stores around the globe to buy the latest new or not so new devices.
Apple stock owners have had much of the same relationship with the company. They have bought and held the stock even with its paltry dividend and are willing to pay nearly 7 times its underlying book value — with a large share of that in cash and its equivalents. And that has largely been paying off for Apple stock. The last five years have seen the shares rise by just shy of 100% — more than doubling the gains of the S&P 500.
But AAPL stock has really not done that much better than the S&P 500 Information Technology Index, as Apple merely beat the tech index by only 6% for the trailing five years. Now, as the shares have dropped from Oct. 3 to date by nearly 35%, investors need to answer the question: is AAPL stock a buy or a sell right now?
Sell Apple Stock?
Apple’s business model is really showing its flaws right now. Unlike the more successful technology companies that have or are moving away from unit sales to recurring income, AAPL is still locked into moving more iPhones. The iPhones for the most recently reported quarter amount to 59.12% of its overall revenues. And as we’ve been learning and figuring out, iPhone unit sales are not expanding and for some of the newer models they are actually slipping.
Remember, AAPL doesn’t really engineer much of its iPhones and other devices as that is outsourced to many technology companies. And it doesn’t assemble its products as that is outsourced again to a few companies. And both the component makers and the assemblers have been reporting big drop-offs in orders with some announcing production line shutdowns on order by AAPL.
Apple in turn, has moved to raise unit prices to keep revenue topped up. And it also has announced that it won’t tell shareholders how many units its sells anymore. That can be figured out of course, but still, the end of transparency is a problem.
Apple is trying to focus the attention on recurring income called services. This includes iTunes sales of apps and content. But the problem is that if the number of units declines, then the universe of customers for services will decline. And that’s not a good recipe for building more recurring revenue.
And it is beginning to get worse for AAPL stock. Already, the company is facing class-action suits over its monopoly over app sales in iTunes. Since the company has a lock on its platform, iPhone customers have to use iTunes for apps. And thus, Apple can (and it does) charge more for app purchases and downloads without competition. This is unlike Android devices from Alphabet’s (NASDAQ:GOOG, NASDAQ:GOOGL) Google, which has many other platforms for apps while still having its own, “Google Play.”
And now, two major companies are cutting out Apple from its apps, including Netflix (NASDAQ:NFLX), which will force customers to pay separately and Epic Games, which is pulling its products, including the major game title Fortnite from iTunes. If others join in, it could be a rout that threatens services revenues for Apple.
And since Apple’s iOS operating system is a small fraction of the global universe for mobile that’s dominated by Android, fewer users and fewer vendors would be a potential death knell for the company, much like what happened to the likes of Palm and Nokia and even the old version of Blackberry (NYSE:BB).
Buy AAPL Stock?
But is Apple stock really done? Or is the company about to transform its mission to genuinely be a recurring revenue giant?
One of the biggest ways to get on its way would be to license its iOS systems for other companies to offer access to Apple services on non-Apple devices much like Google does with Android. And while it might sound far-fetched, a deal just announced with Samsung Electronics to offer Apple TV on Samsung’s own televisions is a big first step that would be game changing.
Then there is what I see may be in the works in what some are calling Apple “Prime” after the Amazon (NASDAQ:AMZN) subscription services moniker. Apple Prime would offer a subscription service with monthly or annual charges for which its customers would get the latest iPhones as well as all or some of the content from iTunes. And it could be tiered depending on the products and services.
This again could be a game-changer for the company, and AAPL stock. And one bit of evidence was the tease-out of a suggestion that the company is thinking of making a simpler trade-in service for iPhones in its retail stores.
Right now, the company has quite a bit of capability for funding change. It has plenty of cash and its credit is excellent with debt-to-assets sitting at only 31.30%. And while its trailing operating margins are fat, resulting in excellent-appearing returns on shareholder’s equity and the company’s capital, that’s all hindsight without changes to keep those numbers solid.
And while AAPL shares are expensive on a price-to-book basis as noted above, they are more reasonable on a price-to-trailing-sales basis at only 2.9 times.
But to buy Apple stock you need to expect big changes with proof along the way. If not, then it’s time to sell, take the capital gains, pay the taxes and redeploy the cash to a new company that’s focused on capitalizing on advancing and not just relying on the past.
Neil George is the editor of Profitable Investing and does not have any holdings in the securities mentioned above.