Why Apple stock’s plunge might not be over: Morning Brief

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This is The Takeaway from today’s Morning Brief, which you can sign up to receive in your inbox every morning along with:

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Apple (AAPL) has a technical problem.

The stock has plummeted over 6% in the last two days in its biggest back-to-back slide in 10 months. Apple has now lost about $200 billion in market capitalization since Monday, as Chinese officials are reportedly asking government employees to stop using the world’s most popular phone.

The move lower comes amid a shaky September for stocks and ahead of the iPhone 15 launch event slated for next Tuesday — when Apple fans will likely be treated to enhanced periscope zoom in its flagship Pro model, yet another new charging port (USB-C), and maybe even a new color or two.

But the technical issue facing Apple right now isn’t about the phones it makes or the services it sells. It’s the company’s stock chart.

Only one month ago, shares of the world’s most iconic stock did something brand new in the company’s four-decade history. Apple stock notched a record high — only to be followed by a nasty selloff, the speed of which had never been matched.

At the time, we noted that the weakness would likely persist at least a month based on historical precedent. Indeed, the stock mounted a valiant rally in the second half of August, but the drubbing over the last two days erased nearly all those gains, leaving the stock hovering near multi-month lows.

With the big iPhone event only days away, analysts have soured on the stock — but largely not because of the latest news from Beijing on iPhone crackdowns.

In a recent note to clients, JPMorgan managing director and sell-side tech trader Ron Adler reminded investors that Apple stock usually rallies leading up to its events, but then sells off.

Apple Stock Historical Returns by Month — 1981 to 2022

Apple Stock Historical Returns by Month — 1981 to 2022

According to Yahoo Finance data going back to Apple’s IPO over four decades ago, the stock indeed typically sees a rise in July and August. But it then tends to decline in September, which was already one of the stock’s worst months long before the iPhone was launched.

More recently, in 10 of the last 12 years, Apple stock delivered negative returns in September — consistently selling off after the iPhone launch.

Optimists might correctly note that October is typically the best month for Apple according to the above chart. But this year is already playing out differently. That August bump never materialized, and JPMorgan’s Adler is arguing that Apple stock is behaving uncharacteristically defensively.

He notes that when AI stocks rallied this year, Apple lagged. It’s also exhibiting countercyclical behavior, serving as a cash source for buyers of other stocks. To wit, Apple is up a respectable 35% this year, but that’s a far cry from Nvidia’s (NVDA) 210% or Meta Platforms’ (META) 150% return.

Bigger picture, Apple is now facing three quarters of declining year-over-year revenue growth, which is prompting Sanford Bernstein to compare Apple to another tech stalwart, IBM (IBM).

“Apple between 2015 and 2023 has had strikingly similar pre-tax income and [earnings per share] growth as IBM did between 1997 and 2012,” writes Bernstein. After peaking in 2013, IBM stock cratered 58% and has largely traded sideways since 2015.

Bernstein has two takeaways from IBM that apply to the phone giant. First, “revenue growth matters,” so Apple will need to focus on its top line. Second, strong profit growth alone is unlikely to let Apple cling to a rich multiple that values the stock like a growth company.

Adler at JPMorgan says that if the 2023 trends persist, investors may sell Apple stock after the iPhone event next week and plow the money into Meta, Microsoft (MSFT), and Nvidia (NVDA) — his team’s top three picks.

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