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投资理财

苹果股票遭大规模抛售,预示着未来行情

Shawn Tully 2019年02月01日

苹果不再是可以为再投资资本带来强劲回报的成长股,也不是毋需花费大笔资金就能持续为股东创造可观收益的价值股。

苹果股票曾经是华尔街的宠儿,2018年10月3日达到233美元峰值,公司市值因此攀至1.1万亿美元,打破世界纪录。此后其股价共计下跌33%,因此大批分析师宣称苹果股价现在十分便宜,也并不奇怪。乍一看,用来判断股票估值偏高还是偏低的衡量标准甚至都支持乐观派的观点。

苹果公司悲观的盈余公告,加上当前的下行趋势却传达了相反的信息:投资者要小心。简而言之,苹果不再是可以为再投资资本带来强劲回报的成长股;也不是毋需花费大笔资金就能持续为股东创造可观收益的价值股。未来最好的办法是苹果不得不投入大量资金研发新产品或进行收购,而这些举措最多只能带来普通收益,当然不可能产生像iPhone一样的回报。

苹果公司的首席执行官蒂姆·库克在1月2日出人意料地拉响警报,称苹果收益会远低于他之前的预测,本周二公布的第一季度财报就在意料之中了。苹果公司该季度营收为883亿美元,“毛利率”(收入减去商品销售成本)为38%。这与今年年初库克的预判一致,远低于他在2018年11月1日十分乐观的预测,当天苹果公布了2018财年(9月30日结束)创下的历史纪录,当时库克预计销售额为890亿至930亿美元,营业毛利会高达38.5%。和1月2日一样,库克将此归咎于占苹果销售额五分之一的中国市场急剧放缓,以及消费者不愿意花1000美元购买新的iPhone XS系列产品。

苹果股价在收盘后交易中上涨了3.6%,华尔街似乎松了一口气。事实上,哪怕是1月初的骇人警告也基本没有动摇投资者长期以来对苹果公司的信心,因此宣布消息确实如期而至也不太可能让人们做出“卖出”的建议。就在发布会前,大约50名股票分析师中有一半将苹果公司的股票标记为“买入”,而另一半则标记为“持有”。没有一位分析师建议客户卖出。分析师平均预测苹果股价到年底将上涨13%,达到176美元。

倒退的苹果公司

要想弄明白苹果为什么其实一点也不便宜,需要回顾该公司自2018年秋天登顶以来出现的重大财富逆转。2018年,苹果重塑辉煌,投资者因此预言该公司将迎来增长和复兴。

从2015年年底到2017年年底,苹果公司都表现不佳。COROA(资产的现金经营回报率)是判断苹果下行趋势的一个重要指标,该指标由会计专家杰克·切谢尔斯基发明。COROA将企业全年创造的所有现金相加,重新加上赋税和实际支付的利息(而非应计利息),以消除税收和杠杆的影响,再将该数值除以业务中配置的总资产。COROA越高,管理层在工厂、仓库、商店和营运资金中投入的每一美元的收益就越高。如果COROA逐年上升,意味着一家公司在资产负债表上新投入的每一美元资产都在产生越来越高的回报。换句话说,公司在不断增长,并朝着正确的方向前进。

相反,苹果却在倒退。从2016财年初到2017年9月30日,苹果的总资产(按年度平均值计算)激增1040亿美元,达到3920亿美元。然而,尽管苹果采用将留存收益投入低收益债券的方式将1000多亿美元重新投资,2017年的经营现金流比2015年下降了170亿美元。其COROA或资产现金回报率在这两年间从33.1%跌至19.9%。

2018财年,苹果经历了令人瞩目的伟大复兴。2018年的秋天是苹果事业的小阳春。公司股价在10月初登顶,一个月后公布的财年业绩创下新高,扭转了2015年至2017年的局势。2018年,苹果的经营现金流提高了130亿美元,相当于17%,但苹果的这一重大胜利却并非是通过增加新资产实现的;事实上,财年末的资产负债表比年初减少了60亿美元。既减少资产,又扩大现金流,这个黄金组合是推高股票的秘方,也说明公司管理十分得力。

苹果公司怎么处理它没有留为己用的那部分现金呢?这些钱再加上其它部分资金都返还给了投资者。2018财年苹果的自由现金流,即运营现金减去资本支出达到637亿美元。但公司花了864亿美元回购股票、支付股息,这个惊人的数字是其自由现金流的136%,这意味着它从资产负债表中拿出了超额现金奖励投资者。苹果公司的增长似乎来自基础业务的复苏。2018年,苹果收入暴涨370亿美元,增长率为16%,成本仅上涨13.8%,带来了利润的提高。当年中等价位的iPhone 6大卖;事实上,iPhone销售额的增长占总收入增长的70%。

尽管苹果实现了用最少新增投资产生最多现金流的改变,成绩骄人,但却没有充分利用这笔现金。它将731亿美元用于高价回购自己的股票——平均价格为180.3美元,比今天的股价高出14%。如果按照今天的股价回购,使用同样的钱能降低其股份总数,将每股收益提高1.5%。

辉煌难以再现

苹果第一季度收益的下滑、库克对中国市场和iPhone XS销量的预警,清楚地表明2018年的成功独一无二,不可复制。另一方面,苹果市值下跌三分之一,跌幅达3620亿美元,这意味着投资者未来的收益将远低于四个月前的预期。那么苹果看似不高的估值是否低估了一家伟大公司的未来前景,苹果股票现在是否值得大量购入?

实际上,苹果在以下两种情况下可能真的很便宜。第一种情况是将这家智能手机巨头视为无增长的价值型股票。过去几年,苹果可持续的自由现金流大约在500亿美元左右,远低于2018年的骄人数字。这样一来,其市值上限为现金流量的14.5倍。因此,如果苹果重复去年的做法,以回购和分红的形式将所有现金流返还给投资者,它的“实际”收益率为6.9%(14.5倍的倒数),假设通胀率为2%,则其名义收益率为8.9%。由于十年期国债收益率只有2.5%,苹果的收益率看起来仍然非常可观。“这就像买了一只收益率稳定保持在几乎9%的优先股,”切谢尔斯基说,“前提是苹果能持续从庞大的客户群中获得稳定的收入。”

如果这种情形成立,苹果现在的股价确实很便宜。但苹果公司处在一个动荡不安、快速发展的行业,长期保持高利润需要不断推出新产品,而非依赖旧产品。“苹果就像几年前的微软一样。”切谢尔斯基说。“微软从Windows软件中甩掉了大量现金,但未能推出新的热门产品,最终通过扩大服务重新实现增长。“

在第二种情况下,如果苹果可以找到像iPhone一样轰动的新产品,那么现在的股价就很便宜。新产品必须十分热销,才能将利润维持在当前水平,更不用说推动增长了。目前为止,XS远远算不上热门。iPhone巨大的利润空间吸引着竞争对手的追逐,三星等劲敌正在对其霸主地位发起挑战。最有可能的是,苹果将不得不投入大量现金寻找新的热门产品。

过去苹果公司从未表现出能够通过保留现金来提高回报。它可能会转而开展收购,此前苹果公司一直避免选择这种方式。但大规模的并购风险大、成本高。从某种意义上说,苹果公司是自己成功的牺牲品。它将继续产生相对较高的收益和利润,但由于其新增投资会产生低收益甚至负收益,公司的现金流将持平或减少,2016、2017年就是这种情况。

投资者有充分理由抛售苹果股票。很难相信它的辉煌时刻几个月前才刚刚结束。(财富中文网)

译者:Agatha

Apple stock was a Wall Street darling when it peaked at $233 a share on October 3, raising its market cap to a world-record $1.1 trillion. So it’s no surprise that the iPhone-maker’s 33% drop since then has emboldened the analyst community to declare that Apple is now really, really cheap. At first glance, the standard metrics that gauge expensive versus bargain valuations even backs the optimists.

Apple’s downbeat earnings announcement, and its current, downward trajectory, carry the opposite message: Investor beware. Put simply, Apple is no longer remotely a growth stock that can deliver strong returns on reinvested capital, nor is it a value stock that can keep returning tons of cash to shareholders with no big outlays of capital. In the future, the best bet is that Apple will be forced to invest heavily in new products or acquisitions, and that those initiatives will yield at best mediocre, and certainly non-iPhone-like, returns.

Given that CEO Tim Cook had issued a shocking alarm on January 2, warning that Apple’s earnings would fall well below his previous forecast, the Q1 announcement on Tuesday held few surprises. Apple posted $88.3 billion in revenues for the quarter, and achieved a “gross margin” (revenues minus cost-of-goods-sold) of 38%. That’s in line with Cook’s alert at the start of the year, and far below his super-upbeat guidance on November 1, 2018, the day Apple unveiled its record numbers for fiscal 2018 (ended September 30), when Cook predicted sales of $89 billion to $93 billion in sales, and operating margin as high as 38.5%. As in the Jan. 2 release, Cook blamed the shortfall on a sharp slowdown in China, a market that accounts for one-fifth of Apple’s sales, and consumers’ resistance to spending $1,000 and up for an upgrade to its new iPhone XS line.

Wall Street seemed relieved: Its stock jumped 3.6% in post-close trading. Indeed, even the dire early-January warning did little to shake investors’ long-term faith in Apple, so it’s unlikely the announcement confirming the bad news will trigger any “sell” recommendations. Just prior to the new release, half of the approximately 50 equity analysts following Apple labeled its shares a “buy,” and the other half issued “holds.” Not a single analyst advised clients to sell. On average, analysts forecast a 13% gain in the share price, to $176 by year end.

A company in retreat

To understand why Apple is actually far from cheap, it’s important to examine its severe reversal of fortunes since the glorious autumn of 2018. That year represented a big comeback that prompted investors to herald a renaissance in growth.

From late 2015 to late 2017, Apple was in a funk. A good metric for gauging its decline is COROA, or cash operating return on assets, a measure developed by accounting expert Jack Ciesielski. COROA totals all the cash generated by an enterprise during the year, eliminating the effects of taxes and leverage by adding back taxes and interest actually paid as opposed to accrued, and divides that number by the assets deployed in the business. The higher the COROA, the better management’s performance in exploiting each dollar invested in plants, warehouses, stores, and working capital. And a rising COROA, year after year, means that a company is generating increasing returns on each new dollar of assets it’s adding to the balance sheet. In other words, it’s continuously improving, and charging in the right direction.

Apple, in contrast, was retreating. From the start of fiscal 2016 through September 30 of 2017, Apple’s total assets, measured as a yearly average, jumped by $104 billion to $392 billion. Yet despite re-investing that $100-billion-plus, primarily by plowing retained earnings into low-yielding securities, Apple generated $17 billion less in operating cash flows in 2017 than it posted in 2015. Its COROA, or cash return on assets, dropped over that two-year span from 33.1% to 19.9%.

In fiscal 2018, Apple experienced a remarkable resurgence. The fall of 2018 unfurled as spectacular Indian summer. A month after its stock hit the early October peak, Apple unveiled record results for the fiscal year, reversing the pattern of 2015 to 2017. In 2018, Apple raised its operating cash flow by $13 billion or 17%, and but effectively achieved that coup without adding new assets; in fact, its balance sheet shrank by $6 billion from the start to the end of the fiscal year. Swelling cash flow while shrinking assets is an ideal combination—a formula for a rising stock price, and a earmark of strong management.

What did Apple do with the cash it generated it didn’t keep? All the money, and more, went to investors. In fiscal 2018, Apple achieved free cash flow, consisting of cash from operations minus capital expenditures, of $63.7 billion. But it paid out an astounding total of $86.4 billion, or 136% of that amount, in buybacks and dividends, meaning it contributed excess cash from its balance sheet to reward investors. Apple’s bedrock business appeared recharged for growth. In 2018, revenues jumped by $37 billion or 16%, while costs rose just 13.8%, a combination that lifted margins. The mid-priced iPhone 6 was an enormous hit; in fact, the jump in iPhone sales accounted for seventy percent of the total rise in revenues.

Although the shift to generating lots of new cash with minimal new investment was encouraging, Apple didn’t make the best use of that cash. It deployed $73.1 billion towards buying its own shares back at high prices–an average of $180.3, 14% above today’s level. Had Apple used the same dollars to purchase its stock at current prices, it would have lowered its total share count, and raised earnings-per-share, by an additional 1.5%.

Lightning rarely strikes twice

The drop in Q1 earnings, and Cook’s warnings on China and sales of the iPhone XS, show clearly that 2018 represented an unrepeatable, one-of-a-kind phenomenon. On the other hand, Apple’s market cap has dropped by one-third, or $362 billion, meaning that investors expect that future earnings will be a lot lower than they’d forecast just four months ago. So does its seemingly modest valuation underestimate a great company’s future prospects, making Apple shares a great buy?

In effect, Apple could indeed be cheap in either of two scenarios. The first casts the smart phone colossus as a no-growth value stock. Over the past several years, Apple’s sustainable free cash flow appears to be around $50 billion, well below its extraordinary numbers for 2018. That puts its multiple of market cap to cash flow at 14.5. So if Apple were to do what it did last year, and return all of its cash flow to investors in the form of buybacks and dividends, it would produce “real” returns of 6.9% (the inverse of the 14.5 multiple), and nominal returns, assuming 2% inflation, of 8.9%. Since ten year treasuries yield just 2.5%, that looks like a great deal. “It would be like buying a preferred stock yielding almost 9% forever,” says Ciesielski. “The idea is that Apple would keep generating consistent income from its huge installed base.”

If that scenario were plausible, Apple would indeed be cheap. But Apple operates in a tumultuous, fast-moving industry where keeping profits high over the long-term depends on continually launching new products, not relying on old ones. “Apple resembles Microsoft a few years ago,” says Ciesielski. “Microsoft was throwing off lots of cash from Windows software, but couldn’t find a new hit. It finally renewed growth by expanding in services.”

In a second scenario, Apple would be cheap if it could find blockbuster successors to the iPhone. New hits must keep coming to sustain profits anywhere near current levels, let alone recharge growth––and so far, the XS is far from a hit. The iPhone’s rich margins are catnip for rivals with competing products, and foes such as Samsung are raising a mounting challenge to its supremacy. Most likely, Apple will be forced to invest giant amounts of cash in search of those hits.

In the past, Apple hasn’t shown any ability to raise returns by retaining cash. It might turn to acquisitions, an option it has previously shunned. But big mergers are both risky and expensive. In a sense, Apple is a victim of its own success. It will keep generating relatively high earnings and margins, but as it re-invests at low or negative returns, the story of 2016 and 2017, its cash flows will go flat or dwindle.

Investors dumped Apple’s stock for good reason. It’s hard to believe that its Indian summer ended just months ago.

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