Market musing while being inactive

I hate to sound like a broken record, but I’ve still been doing nothing other than research but nothing worth investing in at the moment except for one illiquid play mentioned in an earlier post.

Here is a series of miscellaneous observations:

* I note that Apple (AAPL) continues its slide down to the point where I am wondering if they are pricing that the company is not going to be able to keep its premium pricing strategy. On paper, they are still massively profitable, but if competition continues to chip away at their product line (mainly through Samsung on the phone front and a variety of other realistic competitors on the tablet front), they might run into revenue growth problems. The company in their last fiscal year (ended September 2012) made $156.5 billion in revenues and this year the analysts are projecting an average of $182.8, which is a $26.3 billion increase year-to-year. This is a huge amount of growth and the law of large numbers will likely be catching up to Apple in short order.

* CP Rail (CP.TO) is trading at absurdly high valuations at present. They performed a change in management and the market is giving the new CEO a lot of credit, but the railroad business is very mature and I don’t have a clue why they are giving the equity such a huge premium at the moment. I’d be a seller at this price range (the C$130 mark).

* Anybody remember the big scare about rare earths a couple years ago when China started restricting the supply and most of those stocks went crazy? The big play here, Molycorp (MCP) has continued to slide into the gutter now that the market reality of the perceived shortage has completely gone away. The substitution effect is very powerful and MCP shareholders are holding the bag.

* Likewise, most other fossil fuel commodity companies, including my favourite company that has been so overrated by many, Petrobakken (PBN), are continuing to suffer. It is similar to how most gold mining companies are not faring nearly as well as the underlying commodity – it costs an increasing amount of money to extract the resource, so even if the commodity price is increasing, if your costs are increasing, you are not going to make much money. Even Crescent Point Energy (CPG.TO) is starting to lose its lustre.

* The other commodity market that is continuing to get my curiousity up is currency trading – the US dollar has continued to outperform most of the other global currencies. The only way that I play this is that I try to hedge my portfolio by having some US-denominated securities rather than using leveraged speculation.

* The two Canadian Real Estate financing proxies, Home Capital (HCG.TO) and Equitable Group (ETC.TO) warrant a further look. HCG has faded somewhat off of its 52-week high, but Equitable is still there. If people are still hyper-bearish on the Canadian real estate market, these two companies should be the first on anybody’s short selling list. Non-performing loans are still around the 0.3% level and currently still do not show any real signs of distress in the market. I am still riding the wave on Genworth MI (MIC.TO) and believe there is still a reasonable percentage gain to be realized from current price levels. The loan companies, however, are hugely leveraged and I’m finding it difficult to see value there when book values are so significantly below market prices.

* Long term interest rates have also taken a nose dive – the Canadian 10-year bond was skirting at the 2% yield a month ago, but now they are back down to 1.8%. The world is awash with capital and there are few places to deploy it where you’ll generate yield at an acceptable risk level. Eventually the leverage party will end and the fallout is going to be very brutal. Whether this happens in 2013, 2014 or later, nobody knows. But there will be fallout, and figuring out how to brace yourself for the fallout will be a big financial challenge over the next decade.

Projections about the iPhone 5

Articles like this make me skeptical: IPhone 5 Sales Could Offer Big Boost to GDP.

I look at a 30-second Apple promotional video of the iPhone 5 and what I really see is the killer feature is the “virtual keyboard” around 10 seconds in the video clip:

One of my largest complaints about cell phones and other digital tablets without keyboards is that content creation on them truly is a pain in the rear. While sending text messages is fine due to the brevity of them, I would not want to be typing in something as complicated as this post, for example. In fact, when I use a friend’s iPhone 4, I find the keyboard on it to still be a pain in the ass compared to my own flip-out phone with the keypad. I guess I just like the tactile feel of the keyboard. I’m not sure how this virtual keyboard concept will work in terms of speed and accuracy, but if they get it “right” then I can see the feature being useful for people like me that need a keyboard.

However, this is not Apple’s target market – will they capture people non-iPhone users like myself, and will they be able to give a technological incentive for people to upgrade from their older iPhones? We will see.

Apple running up against the law of large numbers

Apple’s 3rd quarter results: I find it funny when analysts report a company making $8.8 billion in net income from $35 billion in sales to be a “miss”, but indeed that is what they are reporting today. Sales figures on notebooks, desktops, iPods and iPhones appear to be flattening out. The iPad continues to exhibit significant growth and is probably in the midpoint of its growth trajectory before it finally starts to taper out.

Apple has grown so large that it will become more and more difficult to post high percentage growth figures. Before this release, the market is saying that the entity is worth about $560 billion (noting that at the end of June the company now has $117 billion in cash on its balance sheet). In after-hours trading, the stock is down 5%, so that shaves off about $30 billion off of its capitalization, to about $530 billion.

Extrapolating the last quarter’s results into a full year gives a P/E of 15, or if you subtract the cash stack, a P/E of 12. When you factor in that growth will not quite come as easily for the company, one can get a semblance of how this $530 billion capitalization is not going to become a trillion dollars anytime soon. Still, when you ask yourself if Apple is going to go the way of the dodo like Nokia and Research in Motion, the answer is instinctively no, but nobody thought those other companies would be surpassed so quickly either. Apple has one huge asset in its advantage that its competitors currently do not: it is a fashion icon.

Apple

Apparently Apple is going to announce at 6:00am Pacific time what they are planning on doing with their cash stack.

My best guess is that they’ll give out a regular dividend. It will be around $3-4/quarter.

Whatever the company decides, it will have zero impact on its value, but the market will bid it up like crazy since a dividend means it can also be included on the eligibility list of six billion income mutual funds out there.

That said, everybody and their grandmothers are long on Apple. If you buy the Nasdaq 100 you have a ridiculously large fraction of Apple. The S&P 500 has over 4% of Apple. Apple has been going up parabolically since the beginning of the year, and while it has killed the equity of a lot of short sellers, a parabolic trajectory up cannot be sustained indefinitely.

This type of catalyst kind of reminds me of what happened back in the internet stock days when they announced stock splits. Now the valueless news du jour is announcing dividends.

No positions. I don’t intend on going long or short – the best thing to do about this freight train is get out of the way and look for value elsewhere since Apple is doing a wonderful job of sucking capital from other worthy candidates.

Playing with numbers – What you can buy with $469 billion

Apple’s market capitalization is $469 billion. Let’s see what you can buy with $469 billion?

Microsoft’s market cap is $257 billion, and Intel is $136 billion. Throw in Dell for some chump change ($32 billion) and you still have $44 billion left to blow on beer and popcorn.

Alternatively if you wanted to go for a more “online model”, you could pick up Google for $199 billion, and throw in Ebay for $43 billion, Yahoo for $20 billion, LinkedIn ($8.5 billion), Amazon for $87 billion and still have $112 billion left to pick up things like Facebook (presently the IPO is not priced yet).

I’m not saying that Apple is a buy or a sell at existing prices, just that its market gigantic market capitalization means it will be facing the law of large numbers, mainly it becomes more and more difficult to increase your size on a constant percentage basis when you get bigger.

Apple and the winner-take-all market

Every media outlet is reporting the blowout quarter that Apple had – the financials are just something to be salivated at. With $46.3 billion in sales, $25.6 billion in cost of sales, you are left with $20.7 billion of gross profit. Subtract $3.4 billion in operating expenses and you are left with $17.3 billion in operating income.

This was in a single quarter. A lot of people must have wanted their iPhones and iPads for Christmas.

Subtracting taxes and other matters still left shareholders with $13 billion net at the end of the day.

When you add up the cash and marketable securities, they still have $98 billion to splash around.

Normally in technology, companies face incredible price pressure as competition is very fierce. Apple behaves as if it has a monopoly on its market, and in the minds of many consumers, they might as well.

There is erosion potential with the iPhones (specifically with Google’s encroachment with Android), and the iPads are starting to face some functional competition. However, this will not dissuade people from the name brand, as Apple has turned into somewhat of a status icon – this in itself will make it more difficult for competition to break.

The question for Apple – can they keep it up?

The question more relevant for investors would be – what technology upstart ten years from now will be doing the same thing?