Apple Stock: Word Of Caution From Tim Cook And iPhone 14 Pre-Orders

Shahid Jamil

Apple (NASDAQ:AAPL) has held the status as the most valuable company in the world for some time now and for good reasons. I have written about the positives as well as the negatives for the investment case for and against Apple in my previous article. In this article, I look for early warning signs that demand for Apple products may be less than expected as the global economy starts to weaken.

investment thesis

While I continue to see Apple as an excellent company with great products and a strong brand with strong competitive moats, I do think that the current price levels are not the right levels for investors to add to Apple. The premium multiple it is commanding today comes with a high level of risk as the market is pricing in mid single digit EPS growth in the next 2 years. With the heightened risk of slowing of the macroeconomic environment and potentially a recession, demand for Apple’s products could start to wane as consumers become more sensitive in their spending.

As such, I think that the current premium multiple is not warranted given the possibility of further downward revisions to the mid single digit EPS that is priced in today. Even with the competitive moat that Apple has today, with a hefty price tag of 24x 2023 P/E with 6% EPS growth from 2023 to 2024, I think that there could be more downside to come for Apple.

3Q22 revenue beat came from supply side

In the current 3Q22 quarter, the company posted a revenue beat of $2.8 billion. Given that management guided that they expect a supply chain impact of about $4 billion to $8 billion for the current quarter, the approximately $3.5 billion in supply chain impact brought a positive impact of about $2.5 billion to the average of $6 billion supply chain impacts that would be expected for the quarter. As a result, the revenue beat did come from better than expected supply side factors, which is of course positive news given that supply chain issues have been a major constraint for some of its products.

That said, I take a more cautious view on the demand side of things for Apple until I start to see demand driving the beat. I would look at the sales of the newest iPhone 14 models to gauge for demand since, as highlighted in my previous article, the iPhone takes up more than 50% of Apple’s total revenues.

Weak guidance

Although Apple does not usually give a specific numeric guidance, the fourth quarter guidance was less clear than normally provided. In terms of how the macroeconomic environment and higher inflation is affecting the business, I think that it is encouraging that management cleared the air that for the iPhone in particular, there were no obvious signs that macroeconomic factors were affecting the business.

However, it is also worth pointing out that CEO Tim Cook did acknowledge pockets of weakness in Wearables and Services as these businesses seem to be experiencing the impacts of weakening macroeconomic environment. Mac and iPad were constrained by supply which were not enough to test the demand. Also, there are headwinds coming from foreign exchange as there were 300 basis points that had an impact on growth rates in the current quarter coming from these FX headwinds.

All in all, while there are pockets of weakness, I think that it is not all doom for Apple as consumer demand for the iPhone still looks to be holding up. Should there be any signs of weakness in demand for the iPhone 14, I think that this may spell near-term trouble for the company. However, I think management is currently being cautious about expectations rather than management signaling that consumer demand is waning. Furthermore, I think that the uncertain global environment does make it relatively more difficult for a clearer guidance.

Apple’s 7 Sept event

As usual, Apple’s biggest event of the calendar year was met with much enthusiasm. It was great to see incremental improvements, in my view, for their launches of the new iPhone, Watch and AirPods during the 7 September event.

Firstly, I would highlight the pricing for all models of its iPhones remain unchanged. In my view, this is necessary given that Apple could see a shift in demand from iPhone Pro to its non-Pro models if there were a price increase. Apple’s iPhone Pro mix was abnormally higher during the pandemic and an increase in prices for the iPhone 14 Pro might have risked a more drastic normalization of the iPhone mix.

Apple did release other features like the Emergency SOS service that uses satellite connectivity which will be free for 2 years for all the new phones that allow for the service, as well as the Dynamic Island that is meant as a clever use of the cutout in the iPhone Pro model for showing alerts. The iPhone Pro model also has an updated 48MP quad-pixel sensor and up from the previous model’s 12MP. Action mode was also launched for videos to look more smooth in videos with significant motion.

Targeting the fitness and outdoor enthusiasts that currently use watches from companies like Garmin, Apple launched the Apple Ultra Watch. It is a new premium watch with a 49mm titanium case and the watch has improved multi band GPS and the new L5 frequency, with a pricing of $799. Furthermore, the company eliminated the Apple Watch Series 3 while reducing the price of the Apple Watch SE by $30 to $249. This means that the most affordable Apple Watch is now the Apple Watch SE.

Other upgrades include an upgrade to the AirPods Pro, with a new H2 chip that is said to have better sound quality, almost 2x better noise cancellation as well as a longer battery life of 6 hours compared to the 4.5 hours in the previous version. So, the pricing of the new AirPods Pro remains unchanged at $249.

All in all, while there were incremental improvements during the event for the new iPhone, Watch and AirPods, I take the view that these will not make meaningful improvements to the company’s business or growth. With the event now behind us, this also leaves one less catalyst for the Apple stock in the near term and since this event does not move the needle much, most of the upside or downside in the near term will still come from the higher or lower demand for Apple’s products in the current uncertain economic environment.

Early signs of demand from iPhone 14 launch

While it may be premature to gauge how the sales of the newest iPhone 14 will be in the next year, the data from the launch can be a good leading indicator of what we can expect moving forward. Furthermore, typically the more loyal Apple fans will be the ones buying the latest model near launch date and may not be a good representation of what the true demand is going forward.

An analyst from TF Securities has done the good work of analyzing and providing data on the pre-orders of Apple’s newest iPhone 14 models. What he found was that for the top end model, iPhone 14 Pro Max, this surpassed the demand that was seen in the same period last year, for which the analyst rated good. The iPhone 14 Pro saw the same demand as the iPhone 13 Pro one year before and thus, which was labeled as neutral. The iPhone 14 and iPhone 14 plus were rated a bad rating.

I think what this means is that we will see a shift in the mix towards the higher end model and thus a higher average selling price given the strong numbers for the iPhone 14 Pro Max. Furthermore, it does imply that the higher end consumers continue to be willing to spend and that iPhone 14 Pro Max’s features and upgrades are the most attractive relative to the other 3 models.

The iPhone 14 plus had a weaker demand than that of the iPhone 13 mini launched last year, and the two models of iPhone 14 and iPhone 14 plus made up 45% of total shipments.

It remains to be seen whether the relatively stronger demand for the iPhone 14 Pro Max will be sustained past the early pre-order phase as we might see demand wane if the less loyal Apple consumers may not have the same enthusiasm for the iPhone 14 Pro Max as those who made the pre-order.

valuation

Apple is currently trading at 24x 2023 P/E and 23x 2024 P/E. Embedded in this P/E is the pricing in of 6% growth on average in these 2 years. Even though I acknowledge Apple has one of the best businesses and competitive moats, I think that Apple still looks expensive to me at current levels.

I think that Apple’s premium multiple makes it difficult for me to justify investment into the company at current levels because of the risks of macro economy weakening going into 2023, bringing downside to the current 6% average growth expected over the next 2 years. Furthermore, paying 24x 2023 P/E for 6% growth rate does not make sense to me as I see better opportunities out there.

I apply a 20x P/E multiple to my 2023F EPS estimate of $6.40. As such, my 1 year target price for Apple is $128, implying 17% downside from current levels. While I have not priced in a recession scenario in my EPS estimates for 2023F, I think that my estimates are relatively de-risked from that of Wall Street and my lower P/E multiple takes into account the higher risk we are seeing today with regard to the weakening macro situation.

risk

Macroeconomic environment

While it can be argued that Apple has the most loyal fans, the uncertainty around the global macroeconomic environment now means that there are heightened risks that demand could fade if the economy makes a turn for the worse. I think that the main risk for Apple right now both for the upside and the downside is how demand plays out in the near term. If demand holds up better than expected, we could see further upside in the stock price. However, if the recession scenario does occur and demand falls, there could be substantial downside to come.

Market share loss in high-end smartphone markets

While Apple has one of the best competitive moats in the world, sometimes, the bigger they come, the harder they may fall. As such, I think it is crucial Apple maintains this competitive advantage. If Apple is unable to maintain its competitive advantage as an ecosystem leader, other high end smartphone players may take up market share and this will negatively affect share price.

Conclusion

Although Apple’s strong platform creates optionality longer term we see this as offset by a premium multiple and both macro and normalization risks to numbers heading into 2023. We believe there are better options for investors wishing to weather deteriorating elsewhere macro in our coverage.

I prefer to be on the sidelines with Apple at the current levels, and maintain my neutral rating. There are warning signs for the business appearing as Tim Cook has mentioned some pockets of weakness in the business in the 2Q22 call, supply side factors driving the revenue beat in 2Q22, and iPhone 14 and iPhone 14 plus models not being well received in the pre -order stage. That said, I continue to like Apple as a business for the long term with a great management running the show with best-in-class products and strong brand reputation. The premium valuation is not justified with the heightened risks that we are seeing going into 2023 with risks of weakening of consumer sentiment and potentially a recession. As such, I think that the market has not yet priced in these risks for Apple. My 1 year target price for Apple is $128, implying 17% downside from current levels.

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