Bloomberg reported Tuesday that a survey of 1.2 million Chinese iPhone users found they would abandon Apple if they had no access to WeChat, an extremely popular portal.
President Trump last week signed an executive order banning American companies from transactions with Tencent, WeChat’s parent company.
Investors are seriously underestimating the importance of WeChat in China.
For 1.2 billion Chinese it is the mobile operating system. In addition to making calls, sharing photos, emoji and stickers, inside WeChat users can hail cars, order food, pay bills online and make real-world purchases. Outdoor street vendors accept WeChat. The state government, in 2019, began using the service as a digital wallet for official identification.
An iPhone without access to WeChat in China is useless.
Participants in the survey, conducted on Weibo, a WeChat competitor, were unambiguous. A staggering 95% said they would drop a WeChat-less iPhone in favor of an Android equivalent. One user, Bloomberg notes, said an iPhone without the portal was “electronic trash”.
Ironically, American analysts see only treasure. Apple shares surged to a record high today after a Morgan Stanley analyst told clients the iPhone maker was gaining market share in China. Katy Huberty said Apple gained share in July, and that iPhone 12, due in September, might bring the largest upgrade cycle in 4 years.
It’s hard to say if this analysis takes into account banning WeChat in China. We do know Apple managers are worried about the business implications.
The Cupertino, Calif.-based company, last week, was one of more than a dozen companies to express concern to the White House about banning transactions with WeChat.
Ford (F), Disney (DIS), Morgan Stanley (MS), Walmart (WMT) and others, according to a Wall Street Journal report, participated in a conference call with the administration. Their message was best summarized by Craig Allen, president of the U.S.-China Business Council, the call organizer:
“For those who don’t live in China, they don’t understand how vast the implications are if American companies aren’t allowed to use it,” said Allen. “They are going to be held at a severe disadvantage to every competitor.”
Neither the White House, nor the Commerce Department have clarified what transactions with WeChat will be banned. The language of the executive order is vague, however, in the current form, the implication is all transactions everywhere would be disallowed. Barring companies from transactions in the United States only would be toothless.
Apple’s China business is immense. The company has 50 stores there. The investment is bigger than all of Europe, and second only to the United States, yet a study from research firm Counterpoint in May found that market share has fallen to only 9%, a decline of 35% since the end of 2019.
Banning, or even implying a WeChat ban is possible will not help Chinese sales.
Admittedly, I have been bearish on Apple occasionally. In my opinion, the fundamental prospects of the business, and the risks in China given trade tensions, do not seem to be reflected in the stock.
Investors see things differently. Shares have risen as the company transitions away from iPhone sales into services like iCloud, Apple Music and Apple TV+, and Arcade, its new streaming game service. Most of these businesses, while growing, are not a replacement for iPhone sales that have been waning since 2015.
In the absence of sustained hardware sales and profit growth, Apple managers have been buying back company stock at an unprecedented rate.
Last year the company booked net income that was comparable to 2015 but the purchase of 1.2 billion shares in the open market pushed earnings per share, a key metric watched by analysts, from $9.22 to $11.51 in four years. Shares more than doubled.
This is not a bearish note on Apple. Stock trends in motion tend to stay in motion, even when they don’t make sense. That said, investors are drastically underestimating what a WeChat ban would do to iPhone sales in China.