Apple Shares Hit With Rare Downgrade

NEW YORK ( TheStreet) -- Here's something you don't see everyday: A downgrade of Apple's ( AAPL) stock, a day ahead of earnings no less!

BGC Partners is the brave firm making the call, going to hold from buy, and the logic is pretty sound. Analyst Colin Gillis noted the shares are right around a "life time" high, and said there's likely to be a better opportunity to build a position in the stock sometime soon, given the sharp run-up in the past 10 days or so.

"We no longer suggest being overweight shares of AAPL and see that near-term downside risk outweighs upside reward," Gillis wrote. "Shares have gained 14% since October 7, and increased 31% year-to-date. With the largest market capitalization for a U.S based company at $391 billion, any hiccup in its growth is likely to provide an opportunity to add to positions at a better price."

Of course, logic may not enter into the equation for the Apple faithful, which are legion among sell-side analysts on Wall Street. Of the 55 analysts covering the stock, 51 are at strong buy (28) or buy (23), and the median 12-month price target sits at $500, implying potential upside of another 19% from current peak levels.

BGC's Gillis makes a great point about the near impossible treadmill that Apple is on at this point, saying: "The company has to constantly set records just to meet expectations," and says over-optimism being stoked by sales splash of the iPhone 4S ahead of the quarterly report may be setting the stage for a sell-off of sorts.

"There is nothing wrong with Apple's business model or execution, but we do see that sentiment is overwhelmingly positive and shares are within 7% of our $450 price target," he said. "We believe that it is possible shares pull back below $400, possibly even this week after the earnings report on Tuesday post-market, and we would seek to be buyers at levels below $400."

Apple reports its fiscal fourth-quarter results after Tuesday's closing bell, and the average estimate of analysts polled by Thomson Reuters is for earnings of $7.35 a share for the three months ended in September on revenue of $29.61 billion. BGC is below consensus on both the top and bottom lines, forecasting earnings of $6.69 a share on revenue of $29.2 billion.

The firm lists three possible chinks in Apple's armor in the past quarter, being at the end of a phone refresh cycle, educational discounts, and the possibility that the high-flying iPad may have fallen off its record-setting pace.

"As the iPad is Apple's second most meaningful revenue stream after the iPhone, if the company does not continue to set mind-blowing records (iPads sales account for over 10% of worldwide PC sales just five quarters after launch) it is going to be difficult for the other parts of the business to cover the gap," Gillis wrote, saying the tablet business is the biggest concern. "Finally, low-cost tablets from competitors willing to lose profit to gain market share are going to incrementally hurt sales of the iPad."

Apple shares were showing some cracks in Monday's regular session, sliding 1% to $418.09 in recent trades after climbing to a new all-time high of $426.70 earlier in the day.

The company's performance missing the consensus profit view would be even rarer than BGC's downgrade. Apple has outperformed in every quarter since 2004, according to research from Birinyi Associates. The odds, however, are in favor of a decline in the stock in the session after the report, as Birinyi notes this has occurred 66% of the time.

-- Written by Michael Baron in New York.

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Disclosure: TheStreet's editorial policy prohibits staff editors, reporters and analysts from holding positions in any individual stocks.

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