Targeting the Next Apple
It wasn’t that long ago – four months to be exact – that Apple (AAPL) was considered a bloated relic of a bygone era, unable to grow profits fast enough to justify its lofty valuation. On November 14, less than a week after Donald Trump’s surprising win in the U.S. presidential election, APPL closed beneath $106 amid whispers that the upcoming holiday shopping season would be its undoing.
But a funny thing happened on the way to the gallows; not only did APPL once again prove its naysayers wrong by posting solid fourth quarter sales figures, but since the beginning of the year it has spiked more than 20% in value while the S&P 500 is up a little over 5%. APPL closed above $140 for the first time on March 15, proving that the Ides of March does not always result in having a dagger buried in one’s back.
With a market cap approaching three-quarters of a trillion dollars, APPL has reclaimed its seat at the head of the table of the world’s most valuable publicly traded companies. That may come as a surprise to the “Trump stock” disciples that believe the best-performing stocks over the next several years are those that would benefit most from increased spending in defense and infrastructure, while also not being harmed by a border adjustment tax on goods manufactured overseas. Apple is none of those things.
However, what Apple is, and what it is able to do, have repeatedly been proven over the past ten years as its share price has appreciated more than 1,000%. Apple makes really good products that people want to buy and sells them at huge margins, something investors seem to have difficulty remembering when it comes to assigning a fair value to a consistently profitable company like Apple while fawning over a marginally profitable one such as Amazon.com (AMZN).
So now that APPL is once again priced fairly, where else are investors making that same valuation error in the stock market? I believe many companies in the retail sector have become oversold, triggered by disappointment over holiday sales that has magnified into a conviction that consumers are no longer willing to spend money at “big box” retailers anymore. As the thinking goes, it is only a matter of time until everyone buys everything online from Amazon, delivered by an armada of package-bearing drones blotting out the sun.
That sentiment is visible in the performance of the SPDR S&P Retail ETF (XRT) over the past three months. Since peaking above $48 on December 8, the fund’s share price dropped below $41 this week for a loss of 18% while the broader S&P 500 Index (SPY) was gaining 4%. That large of a degree of underperformance over such a short period of time strikes me as excessive given how little we really know about how much future earnings will be impacted for retailers across the board.
Only time will tell to what extent online consumer spending behavior will impact traditional retailers in the future, but I do know every time I go to a local shopping center it is next to impossible to find a parking space. If Americans are spending less time shopping at bricks and mortar stores, it isn’t happening in my neck of the woods. But regardless of how many people are still visiting those stores, it’s what’s happening inside of them that will ultimately determine their fate.
Consumer electronics retailer Best Buy (BBY) was once thought to be an inevitable victim of Amazon’s online invasion of its turf, resulting in its stock dropping by a third in the two years leading up to 2016. But since then its share price has jumped more than 50% after the company shifted its product focus towards a more profitable combination of merchandise and services that does not lend itself as readily to online shopping while beefing up its online merchandising efforts to stave off the likes of Amazon.
And that’s exactly what other companies are in the process of doing as everyone adjusts to the new retail paradigm. You can be sure that the management teams at Target (TGT) and Kohl’s (KSS) are moving aggressively in that direction after watching their stock prices drop by more than a third over the past six months. You never know when a trend has reversed until well after the fact, but I suspect some of these companies are close to bottoming out and, similar to Apple and Best Buy, will outperform the market later this year once investors rediscover their fair value.