Imagine it’s late 2005. Apple’s fiscal year just ended and they reported their performance. You’re an analyst whose job includes forecasting the company’s performance for next year. This is a weighty responsibility. Your forecast will be blended with those of your peers and used as a “consensus” average. That consensus for the next year will be used to measure the current value of the shares in a ratio called the forward PEG or Price/Earnings/annual earnings Growth. You are supplying the earnings and hence growth forecast while the market offers a price. As a stock is meant to measure future earnings, your forecast is a crucial and frequently cited figure about whether a stock is priced fairly.
There is some comfort in knowing that there will be many others who will offer such a forecast and your contribution is thus not the only way investors can calibrate the price. However, you should think hard about what you are predicting as it also will reflect your skill in predicting such a visible company.
Apple just had a tremendous two years. 2004 and 2005 saw EPS grow at 274% and 337%. This is largely due to the runaway hit iPod. Given all that is known about the company, what will you put forward? While you’re at it can you also forecast two years forward, namely provide a growth forecast for 2006, 2007 and 2008?
Here is what you and your cohorts publish as a consensus:
You go with a 13% growth for 2006, 15% for 2007 and 5% for 2008. The chances are, you reason, that the iPod will not carry the company’s growth much longer. The competition is sprouting all over and Microsoft is rumored to be launching its own music player.
It makes sense to be conservative and offer a modest growth of 13%. At the same time you can rate the stock a buy as it is still growing. The stock just doubled in the last 12 months and the law of large numbers says that growth cannot last at the same rate as we’ve just seen.
It turns out the iPod still has some legs and the company’s Mac business seems to be growing. Looking forward you take your 15% growth for 2007 and increase it to 20% and suggest 16% for 2008 and 32% for 2009.
There are rumors of Apple getting into the phone business.
It’s now late 2007. Apple just launched the iPhone and even though it was available in limited numbers on one carrier for one full quarter, the company still turned in an amazing 73%. Again more than three times faster growth than you forecast. What do you do about 2008?
It might make sense to increase the previous 16% estimate to 17% but since there is a real estate bubble brewing, the 32% growth for 2009 should come down to 22% and defer that growth out to 2010, dialing in 27%.
However, there is a credit crunch and talk of a huge recession, even depression looming. Apple is a luxury/premium brand and it is unlikely that those expensive products will sell well into these “macro headwinds”. You predict a decline in the earnings of 13% in 2009, inline with many other tech stocks. You are optimistic however that 2010 will be a year of recovery and predict 18% increase from recession lows followed by a more reasonable 11% growth in 2011.
It’s now late 2009. To everyone’s surprise, Apple grew through the credit crisis. It turned in 34% growth (vs. your predicted 13% decline). The success is hard to believe but the iPhone had a lot to do with that. There are new competitors coming and the recession has proven resilient. With unemployment still high you predict 2010 will still be a tough year. You go with -14% growth for 2010 and postpone recovery out to 2011 with 24% “bounce”. Longer term you see 2012 as a flat year, with Apple earnings shrinking slightly by 1%.
2010 ends with Apple achieving 67% growth. Shocking relative to a -14% growth forecast. But then again, Apple launched the iPad and who could have thought that was a hit? Apple achieved growth throughout the recession and it looks like it might keep going. Your 2011 forecast of 24% looks weak so you increase it to 25%. The 2012 decline thesis is abandoned in favor of 16% growth and, given the likely competition in smartphones, you tone down growth in 2013 to 6%.
It’s November 2011. The company turned in 83% growth. It’s more than three times faster than your forecast. Some people are suggesting that Apple may have a lot of headroom with the iPhone and iPad but the law of large numbers is what it is. The company became the largest by market cap in the world and Android is gaining huge market share. However, in deference to their strong recent performance you increase the 2012 forecast from 16% growth to 24% growth. 2013 goes from 6% to more than double: 13% and 2014 is when growth begins to slacken, though still a healthy 8%.
As the following chart shows, look ahead one year accuracy has not been all that great, but you are at least consistent. In any case, everything you based your decisions on showed remarkable consistency with consensus. You’re just reflecting common sense.
- Though the numbers are all real, the narrative is fictitious. I suspect however that the truth is actually stranger than this fiction.