A Tale of Two Apples

It was the best of Apples, it was the worst of Apples—depending on what type of investor you are. 

At the same time a high-profile hedge fund manager was reducing his position in Apple during the second quarter of this year, legendary investor Warren Buffett was increasing his stake by 55%. That brings the amount of Apple stock owned by his Berkshire Hathaway to a little more than 15 million shares, or roughly $1.6 billion worth at a recent price of $109. Apple’s share price has risen nearly 20% since trading at $92 less than two months ago.

Buffett buying more Apple comes as no surprise, since it’s the type of reliable cash cow that he has built his fortune upon. Apple generates positive cash flow, and shares that largesse with its stockholders in the form of steadily rising dividends. It also enjoys a level of global brand recognition that few other companies can.

As I have often said over the past two years, Apple is no longer a growth company but has become the quintessential value stock. With a market capitalization of $590 billion, Apple is simply too big to grow earnings at the same rate it could when it first introduced the iPhone nine years ago. That’s fine if you are patient, long-term investor like Buffett, but not so great if you are a hedge fund manager whose performance is measured in quarters instead of years.

That probably explains why Scion Asset Management, a hedge fund managed by Michael Burry, recently sold all 75,000 shares of Apple it owned.  That’s the same Dr. Michael Burry made famous by the bestselling book and movie “The Big Short,” which portrayed him as the neurotic hedge fund manager who made a huge bet against collateralized debt obligations, and so profited as finance-fueled housing market crashed. As the movie accurately depicted, Burry is not one to second guess himself when he believes he is right about something, and in this case he decided it was time to ditch Apple.

So far Burry hasn’t said much as to his reasons for exiting Apple, but he did disclose that he opened a large position in Alphabet (formerly Google) at the same time. Trading at nearly 20 times forward earnings, while paying no dividend at all, Alphabet is priced much more like a momentum stock compared to Apple, which trades at only 12 times forward earnings while paying a 2% yield. Clearly, Burry believes that Alphabet’s growth prospects are superior to that of Apple; otherwise, that kind of swap wouldn’t make sense.

That’s the same decision that famed, hardnosed investor Carl Icahn made, as we reported back in April (“Icahn Swaps Apple for Xerox”). Icahn bailed out of Apple after concluding that economic weakness in China would prevent the company from achieving its near-term growth objectives. Like many hedge fund managers, Icahn also tends to take a short term view to owning companies, preferring to extract value quickly anyway he can.

Burry and Icahn have impressive track records. The fact that they have independently arrived at the same conclusion regarding Apple, which is diametrically opposed to Buffett’s opinion, does not necessarily mean that they are wise and Buffet is foolish. If you are an aggressive investor looking to quickly and vastly outperform the stock market, then owning Apple doesn’t make much sense.  But if you are a conservative investor interested in dependable stocks that should beat the market over the long haul, then Apple fits the bill.

Here at Investing Daily, Apple is a core holding in the growth portfolios of both Personal Finance and Utility Forecaster, primarily due to its strong fundamentals. While my IDEAL Stock Rating System assigns a solid score of 7 (on a scale of 0-10) to Apple, it also earns a very high score of 7 (on a scale of 0–8) from our Safety Rating System. It’s rare that the same company scores highly from these two very different rating systems, but when that occurs it usually means that there isn’t much risk in owning the stock.