MONEY stocks

Has Apple Peaked?

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Justin Sullivan—Getty Images

It remains the most valuable company—for now.

When Apple reports its earnings on Tuesday, it’s virtually certain that the tech giant will report record quarterly profits. Apple almost always does.

The question is, are overall iPhone sales growing or shrinking? And if they’re on the rise, will the pace of that growth be enough to cheer Wall Street and stem the recent drop in Apple’s stock, which has tumbled nearly 5% this year and 25% from its all-time highs?

Despite the recent slump, Apple APPLE INC. AAPL -1.85% is still trading at around $100 per share, and investors have made the consumer electronics giant—with a total market value of $562 billion—the most valuable company on earth.

That doesn’t mean they quite believe in it, though.

For one thing, Apple now faces stiff competition for the title of world’s most valuable company. Thanks to Apple’s decline and the 40% gain in shares of Alphabet ALPHABET INC. GOOGL 0.33% since the start of 2015, Google’s parent company is closing in on Apple, with a total market value of $507 billion.

Moreover, the stock’s price is less than 11 times the earnings analysts expect for next year. That compares with a P/E ratio of 16 for the S&P 500, and 19 for rival Microsoft. In other words, the “E” in Apple’s P/E is so high that its total value must be similarly stratospheric, but investors are skeptical that Apple’s profits can grow quickly from here.

Apple does have enormous strength.

The iPhone, which represents two-thirds of the company’s revenues, grew sales 52% over the past year. Continuous upgrades give Apple a regular source of huge cash flow, plus it can still set a premium price “despite a deflationary environment for smartphone prices,” says Motley Fool Asset Management portfolio manager Dave Meier, who holds the stock.

Money

On the other hand, smartphones are a maturing business, and it’s hard for new products to move the needle at a company of Apple’s size.

“There is no next big thing at Apple that will suddenly dwarf the iPhone,” concedes Michael Sansoterra, portfolio manager of RidgeWorth Large Cap Growth, another Apple owner. Sales of the iPad and digital music have been soft, and the Apple Watch wasn’t the massive hit Apple fans were hoping for. Retailers were offering steep discounts on the watches over the holidays.

What to do: The iPhone-driven corporate leap that brought Apple from about $30 a share six years ago to triple digits today won’t be repeated. But the stock could be compelling for investors seeking tech exposure with a bit less drama.

Apple’s comparatively modest P/E means it doesn’t have to keep shooting out the light to keep its share price rising. And its enormous cash stake — some $200 billion — means investors can expect to steadily get paid back in dividends and stock buybacks. It’s also a business you can get your arms around conceptually.

“It’s not like Microsoft, with lots of different businesses,” says Lamar Villere of Villere Balanced Fund. “It’s straightforward, high-cash, and high-profit margin, and yet it’s valued as though it’s going to be shrinking.”

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