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Apple's commoditization discount

When asked where Apple’s growth will come from, most analysts or observers will cite new products. As long as there are new products, then there is growth. Conversely, if there are no new products, then there will be no growth. This is such a commonly held belief that it’s axiomatic: Apple is being valued based on short-term foreseeable growth.

To be more precise, analysts value the wave of growth of every new product and heavily discount the post-growth phase assuming commoditization. There is no value assigned to Apple for extending market reach to the mass market.

Consider: Analysts currently forecast an operating income (or EBIT) of $43.3bn for 2012 and $49.7bn for 2013. That implies growth of 28% in 2012 and 15% in 2013. These growth rates are modest in light of Apple’s recent historic growth and especially 84% in 2011 on EBIT level. Much of this growth has been due to iPhone which quickly captured 4% market share in four years. To suggest 15% growth in 2013 is to suggest that Apple will not increase its phone market share by an appreciable amount. The implicit assumption in that growth figure alone is that Apple will remain a niche player.

Bear in mind that 15% growth is so low as to be half the the growth in the Mac business and below the likely growth in the overall phone market. Considering the risk premium on equities, this growth forecast assumes essentially a no growth scenario. But even with no growth, Apple’s cash flows are huge and thus they should add up to some significant present value. Since we know the value as reflected in the current price, we can work backwards to determine the discount rate being applied to those future flows. In other words, we can calculate how risky Apple’s existing product cash flows are seen to be.

Based on  assumptions originating from analysts’ consensus, we can construct a simple model that will approximate the discount the stock market puts on Apple’s future cash flows. Let’s have a look at an adjusted Gordon or dividend discount valuation model on EBIT basis:

Shares are valued based on the projected future cash flows of a company. Discounting EBIT with Weighted Average Cost of Capital and subtracting growth will yield enterprise value (= market capitalization – cash).

Applying analysts’ assumption of close to zero growth to Apple’s post 2012 EBIT means EBIT stays constant for 2013 and beyond. Let’s solve for the implied capital costs. Right away we can eliminate growth (g) as it equals zero. EBIT reflects operating cash flow since in a zero growth scenario CapEx will equal deprecation and there are no changes in net working capital. As Apple has no debt but a cash surplus, WACC will be equal to cost of equity[1].

Solving for capital cost (WACC) with available analysts’ EBIT estimates reveals a discount rate of 15%.

But let’s remember that analysts have consistently and by a large margin missed Apple’s financial performance. So let’s dial in a more aggressive estimate of around $56bn of EBIT for the fiscal year 2012. The discount rate goes up to 19% and implies an EBIT multiple of 5.3x.

In other words, Apple’s cash flows for a zero growth scenario are being discounted at a rate of 15% to 19%. This places the company in an extremely risky category of investment. It is certainly not something that can be categorized as a value stock.

The discussions on this blog regarding Apple’s valuation have been insightful, but only danced around the triangle of price, earnings and growth. When the growth forecasts are considered vis-a-vis current pricing, the assumptions built into ‘consensus’ forecasts for Apple are condemnations of the company.

They present a view of a company that is extremely vulnerable and can neither preserve its current cash flows nor find new sources of growth. It is, quite plainly, a company doomed to commoditization.

Notes:

  1. Or one can even assume that cash has a positive effect lowering costs of equity (less indirect bankruptcy costs).