[newstory] As many as 25% of iphones unlocked
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I took a close look at Apple (AAPL, news, msgs) in October as the stock was rapidly closing in on the magical $200-a-share level. I liked the company's products, business model and management. The only real negative was its hefty stock price.
So I was surprised when, several weeks ago, Apple showed up on one of my screeners as an inexpensive stock.
I took another look. But regardless of how many times the always-dreamy Apple analysts raised the target price and how many "I love AAPL" posts I saw on investment message boards, I couldn't justify the sky-high stock price. And there's at least one area where Apple is way off track.
Consider the case of the "missing" iPhones.
It is widely estimated that as many as 25% of the iPhones purchased in the U.S. never show up on the AT&T network. And that's a sign Apple made a big strategic mistake by locking itself into an exclusive relationship with the phone carrier.
It has resulted in a huge black market for iPhones. A glance at eBay's daily auctions will show you that easily thousands of Apple's 3G phones are being resold regularly at $800 or more each, with the promise they can be "unlocked" -- used off the AT&T network.
Buying an unlocked iPhone in the booming BRIC countries -- Brazil, Russia, India and China -- is now a status symbol for up-and-comers. In places such as Moscow, unlocked 3G's are being sold by the thousands at $1,200 or more each. This means that by the time a "legal" iPhone makes it to these countries, demand for the phone likely will be largely satisfied. I've seen estimates that 600,000 iPhones are already in use in Russia and as many as a million in China.
Apple and AT&T may have permanently lost out on hundreds of millions (or billions?) in revenue to shrewd middlemen all over the world. As a result, the value of Apple's iPhone business unit is nowhere close where it could be.
The other pluses and minuses
Let's start with giving credit where credit is due. I do believe that Steve Jobs is a genius. There are only few people in the technology world whose words carry as much weight -- among them Bill Gates, Steve Ballmer, Larry Page and Sergey Brin. And Jobs probably has no equal in his ability to market products.
In addition, the ingenuity of Apple's research-and-development team and the simple and brilliant design of Apple's products remain an envy of the entire information-technology world. Loyal customers have willingly shelled out ever-larger sums of cash for the latest in a never-slowing flurry of new and better products.
But that is now where Apple is at risk.
Many of Apple's products could define the term "consumer discretionary spending." And with the U.S. economy on the way to a prolonged recession -- if it isn't there already -- there is simply not enough consumer spending out there for all the new and improved iPods, iPhones and iMacs that Apple can roll out in the future.
As the anemic 0.5% growth rate in revenue from iPods sold last quarter shows, not even Apple's unmatched innovation can force consumers to swap their perfectly good iPods for newer, costlier iTouches. Thus, not even monster sales of the latest iPhones could possibly justify a prediction of 25% revenue growth.
Just such a prediction is the reason my screen turned up Apple as a cheap stock.
To sum up: Though Apple is a great company with unmatched products, shrewd management and loyal customers, the stock carries too much risk at a price of around $175 a share. Yes, the market could carry Apple 5% to 10% higher. But any negative news could easily lead to a gap down that could be quite severe.
Here's my high-level sum-of-the-parts summation of Apple's real value:
The personal-computer unit's value is no larger than Dell's (DELL, news, msgs) at $45 billion. The iPod/iTouch/iTunes business is worth no more than all of Sony (SNE, news, msgs) at $40 billion. The iPhone unit's value is no more than a third of Research In Motion (RIMM, news, msgs) at $25 billion. This is very rough, but the generous total comes out to roughly $110 billion, while Apple's actual market capitalization -- what it would take to buy all of its outstanding shares -- is a pricey $154 billion.