June 17, 2024
Apple’s drop shows price of popularity

Apple’s drop shows price of popularity

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. (MarketWatch) — What investment lesson are you drawing from Apple’s breathtaking plunge over the last couple of months?

The one I think is most important is a contrarian one: To find your prince, you need to be willing to kiss a frog.

For years now, this contrarian lesson was dismissed by Apple AAPL, +1.19% investors, who racked up huge gains by ignoring contrarian analysis and instead investing in the most popular, coolest and best-performing company in sight. (Read blog post on the more than 5,000 mutual funds and ETFs that own Apple shares.)

However, now that the stock is down nearly 40% since its peak of last September — including a more than 12% drop in Thursday’s trading alone — perhaps they will be more open to considering the contrarian wisdom of investing in out-of-favor companies.

The stocks of such companies may be less exciting, but over the long term they usually provide a superior — and certainly less volatile — return.

Just consider a spectacular bet that Robert Arnott, chairman and founder of Research Affiliates, made in the summer of 2010. To set the context of his bet, Apple that summer surpassed Microsoft MSFT, +0.57%  to take the No. 2 spot in the market-cap rankings — and was fast closing in on ExxonMobil XOM, +4.48%  as the largest publicly traded company in the world.

As contrarian investors know, sometimes you need to kiss a frog to find your prince.


BP BP, +3.41%, in contrast, was on life support as it struggled to cope with the disastrous oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. Its stock price had plunged to its lowest in over a decade. Survival was by no means assured.

Like the good contrarian he is, however, Arnott was willing to “kiss the frog”: He publicly bet that BP would outperform Apple over the longer term.

That was a gutsy bet indeed. If you don’t believe me, take a look at the vitriolic comments my column received for merely reporting Arnott’s bet. Read August 2010 column in Barron’s by Mark Hulbert: Is Apple’s market value too big for comfort?

To be sure, Arnott’s bet only recently became a winner. But he is today enjoying the last laugh: Since BP’s low in the summer of 2010, it has produced a cumulative real return of 77%, in contrast to 71% for Apple.

This isn’t the only time Arnott has kissed a frog. Another came a year after his BP-over-AAPL bet: In August 2011 he predicted that Bank of America BAC, +3.03%  would outperform Apple over the long term.

At that time, it was hard to imagine Bank of America’s reputation being more awful. It represented all that was dysfunctuional about bank and mortgage-company behavior that led to the credit crunch and liquidity crisis of 2008.

Even today it is paying the price for its bad deeds: Its latest quarterly earnings, released last week, were hugely depressed by billions in charges related to the settlement of various legal disputes arising out of the subprime-mortgage fiasco. Read full report on BAC earnings.

Is Apple a value investor’s dream?

Yet on this BAC-over AAPL bet, Arnott is even further in the black than he is with his BP bet: Since my August 2011 column reporting it, Bank of America stock has produced an 18-month real return of 60%, versus 25% for Apple.

To be sure, contrarian bets like Arnott’s don’t always work out this nicely. But, more often than not, they do.

We know this because of the superior long-term performance of benchmarks like Arnott’s so-called fundamental indices, which almost always end up underweighting the stocks with the largest market caps.

Consider the FTSE RAFI All-Caps US 1000 index, which weights stocks according to a number of fundamental criteria rather than market cap. In the summer of 2010, for example, when Arnott made his BP-over-AAPL bet, Apple was the 27th largest company in that index. It would have been the second-largest company in the index if its weight had been based on market cap.

Since the inception of the FTSE RAFI All-Caps US 1000 index in November 2005, its alternate weighting scheme has added 1.44 percentage points per year to its return. That’s a lot of alpha to trace to changing each stock’s weight in the index.

Keep that in mind the next time you’re tempted to invest in the latest fad on Wall Street.

What frog might a contrarian be kissing right now?

In an email earlier this week, Chris Brightman, head of investment management at Research Affiliates, suggested betting on Wal-Mart WMT, -0.34%  over Amazon AMZN, +2.97%. The latter company may not have the same pizzazz that Apple did in its heyday, but it still represents the allure and promise of the high-tech sector — especially in contrast to Wal-Mart.

Amazon’s stock is up over 50% over the last year, triple Wal-Mart’s stock gain of just 17%.

Brightman’s contrarian-based reasoning: “Today, Amazon has a market capitalization of $124 billion, more than half of Wal-Mart’s $233 billion market cap. Yet Wal-Mart is more than five times the size of Amazon measured by sales, cash flow, dividends, and book value. Wal-Mart has free cash flow … of $11 billion per year to distribute to its shareholders — which is paid as $5 billion in dividends and $6 billion as share buybacks — providing a nearly 5% annual yield.”

“Amazon [in contrast] has only $2 billion of free cash flow and pays nothing back to its shareholders. Amazon’s sales and cash flow will need to more than quintuple relative to Wal-Mart to match Wal-Mart’s ability to pay its shareholders. Anything less, and Wal-Mart is the better investment.”

Click here to learn more about the Hulbert Financial Digest.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *