Intuitive Surgical Has Its Apple Moment

NEW YORK ( TheStreet) -- When a company is priced to perfection, any hiccup is a disaster.

We found that out last year with Apple ( AAPL). We're finding it out this summer with Intuitive Surgical ( ISRG).

Intuitive prereported its latest quarterly earnings in a press release and missed analysts' estimates.

Revenue will be $575 million against an expected $630 million, and net income will be $160 million instead of $177.7 million.

But the stock dropped more than 17%, losing $2.87 billion in market cap overnight. A few analysts downgraded the stock after the fall, the usual closing of the barn door after the horse has gotten out, and it is losing a few more points Wednesday morning.

Intuitive, which was founded in 1995, according to its company history, has an extremely wide "moat" for its Da Vinci robotic surgery system. The company licensed technology from several universities before entering the market, and no one has yet come close to it.

The system consists of a control station, behind which a doctor sits, and a collection of instruments on robotic arms over an operating table. This allows fine-grained control, a single view of necessary data, a minimally-invasive procedure, and the ability to control multiple instruments at once, according to the Da Vinci FAQ.

The company's moat is made wider as the company gets government clearance for more-and-more types of procedures, as software is added covering more disciplines, and as the system becomes a hospital standard. There are now almost 2,600 Da Vinci suites in operation, in more than 2,000 hospitals.

While Da Vinci is the "Apple" of robotic surgery, there is no "Android." There are small competitors like MAKO Surgical ( MAKO), which specializes in orthopedics, and Accuray ( ARAY), which focuses on cancer surgery.

Medtronic ( MDT) has a one-armed surgical system called O-Arm and a navigation system called StealthStation, but it's far more limited than Da Vinci.

So what happened?

In some ways Intuitive and its customers got sloppy. There were questions about the company's training, lawsuits from some patients, and, most recently, a 483-page FDA report focused on its reporting of mistakes made with the system.

More important, the market has just gotten saturated. This is a $2 million product. Most hospitals can afford just one. Once most hospitals have them, this becomes a replacement market, with smaller margins and growing competition. It's inevitable.

Some analysts, like Sean Williams of Motley Fool, blame Obamacare, but that's a cop-out. The Da Vinci system improves surgical productivity and can reduce mistakes. It serves a global market. The whole planet's not going to Obamacare.

No, what happened here was mostly a case of a stock getting overextended and being priced to perfection as its market approached saturation and its people got a little complacent. It's not that this can happen to anyone; it's that it happens to nearly everyone.

The recent fall in Intuitive shares has sent its price-to-earnings ratio down to a little more than 24. That's almost reasonable. It's less than Google's ( GOOG) P/E.

The hype cycle has passed, and Intuitive Surgical will now have to earn its way with investors, through earnings and (this is speculative) maybe even a dividend.

Like Apple, Intuitive may be transitioning from being a growth story to a value story, but the story will continue, because its moat is still wide. Robotic surgery is still a miracle, and Intuitive is still the leader in it.

At the time of publication, the author was long AAPL.

This article is commentary by an independent contributor, separate from TheStreet's regular news coverage.

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