I Bought Apple

There are some people that just love to take in wounded birds and believe that somehow that can nurse the poor wounded creature back to health. For some sainted few that is their “raison d’etre.”

I bought shares of Apple (AAPL) this morning after it was wounded by downgrades from Bank of America (BAC), UBS (UBS), Piper Jaffray (PJC) and Credit Suisse (CS).

You’re welcome, but I’m not saint. I certainly can’t be categorized as an “Apple lover.” Neither the products nor the shares have had consistent appeal for me, but the subjectivity is out of place when it comes to capitalizing on opportunity.

Clearly, this opportunity stems from the high profile downgrades. Such downgrades confirm for me that there is greater value placed on not missing out on potential gains than there is in protecting portfolios from disappointments.

Recent history has not given strong indication that Apple shares will rally after product launch events, particularly as the quality of the leaks regarding the “news” seem to get better and better. There are few, if any, upside moving surprises. In fact, one wouldn’t be terribly far off base to suggest that the sum total of predictions of what will be announced easily exceed the capability of squeezing all of the new options into a single device. As a result there is always bound to be someone leaving the party disappointed.

For those further expecting the announcement of new relationships, such as in China, there has to be some thought that the downside to disappointment may likely exceed the upside of what may already be partially built into the price.

Yet, protecting a client’s assets takes a back seat.

My basic understanding of math tells me that it’s more difficult to recover from a $5 loss than it is to find an opportunity to make $5 in place of the opportunity you missed.

But with a short-sighted view of what the future holds, analysts have created opportunity, just perhaps not for their clients.

I almost never buy shares without concomitant sale of option contracts, but in this case I listened to my own advice from just a few weeks ago when Carl Icahn entered into the picture.

In addition to now having a more favorable entry point to re-establish a position that was recently assigned, so too does Apple find itself in a better position to further implement its buy-back program. There’s no shortage of money still unspent in that program and there may be more added to the bucket.

No doubt this will be a topic of Icahn and Tim Cook’s upcoming dinner, which Icahn confirmed a few days ago would be this month.

But now that the product offerings are well known, they have no doubt been dissected by many who can extol or pan the virtues and relative value of the innovations. To attempt to analyze the advances incorporated into the iPhone 5c and 5s is somewhat meaningless with regard to short term investing, which is all I hope to ever do.

What I hope to do is turn shares into short term realized profit vehicles. For that reason I don’t dwell on the possibility that the fingerprint reader may be an entry way into mobile secure commerce solutions.

What I dwell on is how likely is Apple to withstand this onslaught and then I’m likely to sell call options into price strength, as I expect a bounce in shares, particularly as Syria is temporarily off the table.

Apple will continue being an incredible cash machine with these new devices. Argue about their price points as much as you want, argue about cannibalization, too. The reality will be that the phones will fly off the shelves and tie up the consumer base for another year or two. After all, it’s not just about selling product, it’s also about making certain that your consumer base is effectively barred from going to the competition without the burden of additional cost.

I’m still a product holdout, but the rest of my family isn’t, some of whom only joined the parade this week.

Scoff at the superficial changes, but Apple knows better than most others that bold colors will not only drive new sales. but will instantly help distinguish itself in the hands of one adolescent as another is watching.

While everyone enjoys talking about “the big picture,” today’s downgrades and market reaction have been anything but mindful of that more encompassing view.

This is what opportunities are made of, despite the fact that risk shares the same parent. Having been very critical of Apple over the past 15 months, and questioning why people had not taken profits before they evaporated, I’ve nonetheless found a number of opportunities over that time to re-establish short term positions. In the past the drivers of those decisions were predominantly based upon option premiums and dividends. This time, however, the catalyst is share appreciation as the market will realize that its immediate reaction was unwarranted.

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Carl Icahn Spells the End of an Era at Apple

This afternoon came news via a simple 140 space statement that Carl Icahn currently had “a large position” in Apple (AAPL).

By all accounts his discussion with CEO Tim Cook were cordial. Icahn himself, in another 140 space blast referred to it as “nice,” and he anticipated speaking to Cook again shortly.

I currently own Apple shares that somewhat surprisingly weren’t assigned away from me last week in an effort to grab the dividend. Considering that shares were trading at about $465 prior to the ex-dividend and the strike price sold was $450, my expectation had been that assignment was a certainty. Especially since option premiums were no longer showing any time premium with such a deep in the money option.

But as many know when it comes to Apple stock, rational thought isn’t always a hallmark of ownership.

I still think back to a comment made to an earlier Seeking Alpha article I had written in May 2012, when Apple was trading at about $575

“I guess it’s hard to not have a certain bias towards a company that has turned $30,000 of your dollars into $600,000 and may if things go right turn it into a $1,000,000.”

I always wondered whether that individual had taken interim profits or whether subsequent to May 2012 had secured some profits as Apple dropped some 200 points. The fact that its author was a CPA wasn’t lost upon me.

At the time, I thought that an investing strategy of hoping to turn $30,000 into $1,000,000 was irrational, just as turning $600,000 into $1,00,00 was irrational.

What was abundantly clear, as I took a cynical view of Apple shares in repeated articles when analysts were calling for a $1,000 stock price was that emotion was at work among many investors. Part of the emotion was the fervent belief that Apple could only keep innovating and would always be an aspirational product with great margins.

However, one refrain that repeatedly was played was that Apple shares were destined to go much higher, based on an absurdly low price to earnings ratio.

The contention was that one the market starting placing a value on Apple shares more consistent with other technology stocks, Apple would soar far above its current level.

Of course, the seemingly rational analysis dismissed the fact that the market may in fact, have been rational in giving Apple a P/E in the 12 range, just like any well regarded retailer.

A retailer? Apple is a retailer and not a technology company? Granted, it is no longer “Apple Computer,” but why should Apple be considered anything but a technology company?

That’s where Carl Icahn comes in.

Despite his recent foray into Dell Computer (DELL), his history as an activist shareholder has not included many companies in the technology arena.

Icahn refers to Apple as being “undervalued” but he isn’t looking at a low P/E to buttress his opinion. He is looking at a continuing large cash position that he envisions as a means of expanding the already large share buyback, that to many has already been the source of Apple strength going from its near term lows to $450.

This is not a case of finding fault with leadership, this is not a case of someone seeking to prevent shareholders from being robbed blind in an insider buyout deal. Apple is very different from Dell in so many ways.

This is all about leveraging cash, without regard to product pipeline and without regard to product margins. This isn’t about cutting expenses or changing direction. It is as pure as you can get – it is about cash.

Icahn cares nothing about this company other than for the cash it holds. Cash which is unleveraged isn’t worth very much to him or anyone else. It certainly adds nothing to a company’s P/E.

Icahn cares nothing about this company other than for the cash it holds. Cash which is unleveraged isn’t worth very much to him or anyone else. It certainly adds nothing to a company’s P/E. It’s time to face the fact that the stock market has been entirely rational in assigning Apple the P/E it has for these past years. It was not going to ever be considered a technology company again. It is a retailer with a narrow range of products which are bought at the whims of a fickle consumer.

While not terribly different from David Einhorn’s earlier attempt to wiggle cash out of the Apple coffers, Icahn is relentless and scrappy. What starts as perhaps a nice discussion can quickly go elsewhere.

While there is a quick pop in Apple shares in the aftermath of the announcement and while I anticipate shares to move even higher, this is the end for the Apple that you knew and loved. It wasn’t the death of Steve Jobs, but rather the indirect impact of his absence that spells the end, as Apple becomes like so many other companies simply nothing more than a vessel for someone that will have as limited interest as a pedestrian day trader.

While I’ve believed that Apple was an eminently good trading stock once in went down below the $450 level in February 2013, I think that in the very near term its suitability as a trade is even further enhanced, despite the large move higher this afternoon.

In fact, in the case of Apple, I would even consider the rare decision to purchase shares without immediate and concomitant sale of call options.

As long as Carl Icahn is on your side, you may as well consider him in the same vein as those who warn that you should “never fight the Fed,”  even if you believe Apple is too large for even Carl Icahn to take on. That’s because this is now also a new era of cooperative behavior (against Bill Ackman, at least), where the big boys are capable of joining forces these days and will do so like vultures when there’s cash to be had.

The only caveat is that it’s not likely that you’ll enjoy dreams of turning $30,000 into a $1,000,00 and so I would be all for taking profits wherever they present themselves.

 

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Shame on you, Apple

Oh, and congratulations, too.

Shame and congratulations on you for completing the world’s most successful corporate issuance of bonds. $52 Billion in bids clamoring for $17 Billion of product.

Remember when Apple (AAPL) products had that kind of demand?

Remember when its stock had that kind of demand?

Remember, the cynics say that dividends and stock buybacks are the sort of things that you do when you can’t propel the business forward.

A few years ago, in a ruling that will forever remain controversial, the United States Supreme Court essentially ruled, that in at least a narrow definition, corporations were people.

For most purposes that designation is somewhat non-sensical, but for the all important world of campaign financing making corporations animate objects had a great benefit. Namely, the privilege of donating obscene amounts of money to political campaigns.

But along with all of the great privileges of belonging to the human race, there have to be some downsides, as well. Social obligations and the burdens and joys of human emotions come to mind.

Like Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, one of the very first human traits that they exhibited after they had done something very wrong and against the “rules” was to feel shame. Ironically, what they did wrong was to have eaten from “The Apple.”

This week, Apple should feel shame.

They borrowed money, as much as 75 basis points above US Treasuries in order to fund a planned $50 Billion buyback and the costs of three years worth of dividend payments.

From a business perspective, Apple should be congratulated, having found a way to satisfy increasingly noisy shareholders and hold the tax man at bay. Although I do wonder why they even had to go 75 basis points above US Treasuries, you can’t argue with the success of the initiative. You would, however, think that Apple was more credit worthy than our own government, but apparently they don’t even measure up to Microsoft (MSFT) in that regard.

While the interest payments are a deductible expense, the real beauty is that Apple is able to put cash directly and perhaps indirectly back in the hands of shareholders without the need to repatriate tons of foreign cash and pay US taxes once having done so. Of course, they also figured out a way to turn down the heat on Tim Cook, just a bit.

Having been an Apple shareholder as recently as last week, I suppose I would have lauded that move by Tim Cook, but now, I find it shameful.

Firstly, not that I expect any devastating news at Apple, but suddenly shareholders have taken a subordinate position to new bond buying stakeholders. The risk to shareholders is certainly small in that regard, but it is also certainly unnecessary.

Secondly, what happened to the ideals?

Although he was a ruthless competitor, the late Steve Jobs had ideals. First and foremost, they related to the products offered by Apple. But they also extended to the financial practices that eschewed capital markets and were ruggedly self-reliant in order to meet its corporate objectives.

While Apple still has exquisite products, among my previous critiques of the company quality of products has never been at issue, they are straying from the founder’s ideals on all counts.

While it can be safely said that the last time Apple ventured into the bond market, it did so to save itself from financial ruination, Steve Jobs had not yet returned to the company. We’ll never know whether Apple under Jobs’ leadership would have been driven to the point of desperation, but we do know that in the 25 subsequent years that source was never tapped again.

Whatever the basis for his ideals, they included a disdain for share buybacks and dividends. As recently as a 2010 shareholder meeting, Jobs stated that Apple needed to keep its cash for growth opportunities and further said that paying a dividend or buying back stock would not change the stock price. You can argue those points, but what you can’t argue is that Jobs’ idealism exchanged the illusory effects of dividends and buybacks for the real effects of stock appreciation.

So here we are. Shares had fallen in excess of $300, the pipeline appears dry and questions regarding TIm Cook’s continuing leadership have popped up.

In response, Apple has gone where the beleaguered go. They have gone the route of buybacks and dividends. Nothing terribly creative, but a step designed to quiet some of the complaints from shareholders and activists.

Yet, they went to the bond markets to get the necessary cash to perform what may in and of itself been unnecessary. By all reports they did so to avoid repatriation of foreign held cash and to avoid paying U.S. taxes upon those funds.

Remember the 2012 elections? Remember candidate Romney and the controversy surrounding his taxes? There was never a question as to whether Romney had broken the law or done anything illegal. It was an issue of his taking advantage of every loophole in the tax code that was imaginable. Not illegal, but most people innately believed that there was just something wrong about navigating a path that no one creating regulation or legislation could have imagined would exist.

Bill Gates and Warren Buffett believe that to be the case. I suppose that’s another way that Apple doesn’t measure up to Microsoft.

On its surface you know that there is something wrong when an individual can have an IRA valued in excess of $100 Million. Not because the amount is so large, but rather because of the annual contribution thresholds. For example, assuming Mr. Romney made a maximum $5,000 contribution each year for 30 years and achieved an annual 35% return, he would still only have $40 million.

Shameful.

Yet here Apple has garnered its own shame. Exploiting the tax code in a way that the average person, perhaps even investors in Apple, intuitively know is wrong. Maintaining a significant cash reserve overseas to avoid paying taxes just doesn’t pass the smell test for most people, despite being legal.

But by so doing, they are also not re-investing any significant portion of their $150 Billion cash reserve into the business, nor are they pursuing meaningful acquisitions. The money sits in a low interest environment.

Given that shameful disregard for shareholders,you could understand why there was a growing chorus for something substantive to be done.

While corporations traditionally did not have social responsibilities, that too is a burden of now joining the human race. Among the social responsibilities is to put their money to work and to pay taxes, without hiding behind the loopholes or the unanticipated escape routes found in existing regulations and legislation.

I’m not really certain whatever happened to Adam and Eve after their banishment from the Garden of Eden. Their expulsion was swift, and perhaps the entire human race paid a steep price for their actions.

I think Apple’s recent action will result in the same steep price for its shareholders as the euphoria around the offering has already disappeared. The future looks less optimistic as Apple settles into a state where they are no different from the rest and beginning to rely on smoke, mirrors and lapses in tax policy to perpetuate their leadership.

In the meantime, without anything substantive in its future, Apple will remain a trading vehicle that may offer risk to those looking at it as a long term value.

While I can’t hold Apple in esteem for their anti-social behavior, and blatant thumbing of its corporate nose at its responsibilities, I do think that if offers some exceptional short term opportunities, especially when coupled with a covered call program.

I look forward to more of those positions as shares come back down in price to the $410-420 range, which I anticipate occurring prior to next week’s ex-dividend date.

As long as they’ve already made a deal with the devil, I may as well get my piece.

 

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