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Kass: More Bruises on Apple

This column originally appeared on Real Money Pro at 9:37 a.m. EDT on Oct. 3.

NEW YORK (Real Money) --

Pride goeth before a fall - also publicity, handshakes and celebrity. The biblical injunction about the first and the last trading places often has literal truth. Thus, stocks and bonds, which fared poorly in the inflationary 1970s, excelled in the disinflationary 1980s. The country's most admired companies (as listed annually in the glossy business magazines) are frequently on their way to becoming among the country's least admired investments. When a cynical investor hears that there are too many optimists in the market, he will begin to worry. By the same token, an over-abundance of pessimists will give him courage. After all, he may ask, if everyone is already bearish, who is left to sell?

-- James Grant, Minding Mister Market: Ten Years on Wall Street With Grant's Interest Rate Observer

Apple (AAPL) has truly become the investment tail that wags Mr. Markets' dog -- its shares literally have a hold on the market, and the company's large index weighting seems to be responsible for almost every market wiggle.

Ten days ago, I wrote "The Bear Case for Apple," in which I cited the following 10 concerns:

  1. Quality vs. price: Apple is now selling less or equal for more money. The company used to sell a better product for more money, which is a great strategy. Its products were simply market-defining, and competitors were not close. Recently, however, things have changed, and competitors have caught up. Now Apple is selling an equal to worse product than the competition for more money (both phones and tablets). That strategy cannot work forever. This is the biggest issue.
  2. Delivering a more complicated product: Products are also getting more complex and Microsoft-like. Apple's challenge is to deliver ever more complicated products (with a lot of new components) in sufficient quantities. See most recent Foxconn issue. Previously, we would never have seen such a story because there were never issues and nobody would dare voice them, especially not an avowed Apple zealot like the author of this interesting article.
  3. The Oracle of Cupertino: Steve Jobs is no longer around to convince consumers that his products are magical. There is no longer a single visionary voice, especially with the vision of Steve Jobs. There are stories floating around about internal disagreements and power struggles given the unique void created by the loss of a single dominant figure in an unusual corporate structure that he controlled.
  4. Increasing product homogeneity: Apple no longer has a huge ecosystem advantage. Most if not all the apps that consumers care about are available on Android and Microsoft (MSFT), which can also run Office apps such as Excel that Apple doesn't. The first-mover advantage might be lessened or lost if Apple continues to try to do everything on a proprietary basis -- for instance, maps (and who wants a smartphone with bad maps?).
  5. Economic headwinds: Some of the markets served by Apple are saturated, and in a worldwide economy facing strong headwinds, consumers may balk at a product that can be purchased at much lower prices from competitors. Until last quarter, Apple never missed consensus expectations during a product transition. There is more to last quarter's miss than transition.
  6. Poor economic proposition for Apple's partners: Apple's carrier partners do not like the economics they give to Apple. Apple's partners have shown that they can and will shift to the good alternatives that consumers seem to like (e.g., Samsung Galaxy).
  7. Roadblocks to new initiatives: Potential business partners in general do not like or trust Apple relative to other initiatives. The music industry and AT&T (T) have not had great experiences with Apple, and the company might find it hard to sign deals for new initiatives.
  8. Product cannibalization: The iPad mini may cannibalize the higher-margin iPad -- or just be a neutral at best.
  9. Growing size mandates delivery of more product blockbusters: An investor better believe in a huge new blockbuster product next year. TV is complex due to relationships with cable companies, set-top box manufacturers and channel guide programmers. Google may one up Apple in the space, as it owns Motorola's set-top box division and has Google Voice already. If it comes to integrating more complex solution for TVs with content, cable companies and other media partners have learned not to trust Apple given the poor outcomes other Apple partners have had (e.g., music industry, AT&T, etc.).
  10. Valuation: Apple's stock is cheap on a P/E basis but arguably very expensive on price/sales (4.4x) and total absolute market capitalization basis ($625 billion).

Back on Sept. 24, Apple's shares traded above $700 a share and have since dropped by about 6%, a far larger decline than the broader market indices.

With the same caveat that I fully recognize that Apple's revenue and margins in the December quarter will be very good due to the fastest ever global rollout of the iPhone 5, this morning I wanted to raise some additional concerns.

Apple is losing some mojo and mindshare. The Samsung Galaxy ad goofing on Apple for all its deficiencies and customer-unfriendly practices is a leading viral video. Samsung's campaign for the Galaxy S III, a phone released in June, beat out Apple on Ad Age's Viral Video Chart last week. The Galaxy S III campaign snagged 13.2 million views. And although the campaign had been on the chart for three weeks prior to this one, the iPhone launch helped it increase its views more than seven times and jump from No. 5 to No. 1.

Last week I went into one of Apple's New York City stores. It was not as nearly busy as my last visit in August. The key going forward is new customer ratio in stores. I asked around, and it seemed that old customers dominated the store's population. Are we seeing some fatigue in the installed base? Are buyers taken aback by the new adaptors that lack compatibility with the old phone adapters? I don't know. I do know that I played with the iPhone 5 for about a minute and got quickly bored. Bottom line: This is the first product launch by Apple with no wow factor and much less cool than other products on the market such as Samsung Galaxy S III and HTC One X.

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