AAPLs To AAPLs: Not All iEarnings Are Created Equal
While we have long-argued that the discussion over the use of Apple's cash pile is somewhat circular (lower cash equals higher risk, less ability to withstand any shock, and investor perception growth/value shift) in its 'value' for the company, Bloomberg's always-sharp Jonathan Weil has a slightly different tack on the mega-firm's accounting conventions and why it may not be so cheap. As he points out, analysts (and talking heads) persistently argue that the firm's value is cheap at 14.3x T12M earnings (in line with the S&P) in spite of far higher growth (revenues and earnings). Competitive threats are often cited, future uncertainty of the consumer comes up, and the use of the cash argument we already mentioned but as Weil highlights, it seems that Apple's less than conservative accounting methods (that they lobbied for and heaven forbid Obama would re-consider a tax-the-rich opportunity) with regard to booking the revenues of bundled products more quickly than it used to (which caused, for instance, 2009 revenue to jump 44%). So while there may indeed have been record demand for the i-everythings, record 'blow-out' earnings is as likely a symptom of accounting inflation as unpaid mortgage cash being put to work. It seems the market realizes this and so the next time we are told to 'buy-the-dip as Apple is cheap', remember there is a reason for that 'cheapness' - that, as Jonathan so eloquently points out "not all iEarnings are created equal" as economic and accounting realities diverge once again.
Apple’s Stock May Not Be as Cheap as It Looks: Weil
By Jonathan Weil - Feb 16, 2012
... Apple trades for only 14.3 times its earnings for the previous four quarters -- about the same as the Standard & Poor’s 500 Index’s price-earnings ratio -- in spite of growth that’s far above average. Revenue last quarter rose 73 percent to $46.3 billion, while earnings more than doubled to $13.1 billion.
While each of those points has merit, here’s an explanation that hasn’t gotten enough attention: Thanks to an accounting- rule change for which it lobbied, Apple gets to book revenue from sales of bundled products such as iPhones -- which include hardware, software, services and upgrade rights -- more quickly than it used to. In short, one reason Apple’s earnings have been so high is accounting inflation, and the market realizes this.
The easiest way to see the rule change’s impact is to look back at the two sets of numbers Apple reported for fiscal 2009. Originally, the company said it had $5.7 billion of net income for the year on $36.5 billion of revenue. Then in January 2010 Apple retroactively adopted the new accounting principles and restated its previous numbers. The restatement boosted Apple’s fiscal 2009 net income 44 percent to $8.2 billion. Revenue was revised to $42.9 billion, 17 percent higher than originally reported.
Nothing changed economically, of course. Only the accounting did. On the surface, though, Apple’s valuation looked cheaper under the new reporting regime than under the old one.
“It would appear that the market continues to consider a significant component of Apple’s revenues and gross profit to be presently unearned and not deserving of a normal market multiple,” said Charles Mulford, an accounting professor and director of the Financial Reporting and Analysis Lab at Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta.
... The impact for Apple seems to have been greater than for most others, probably because of the nature of its products. Dell Inc. (DELL) said the rule switch had no material impact on its results. Microsoft Corp. (MSFT) and Oracle Corp. (ORCL) said the same. Hewlett-Packard Co. (HPQ)’s earnings got a slight boost.
The FASB rule change had two main parts. One related to so- called multiple-deliverable arrangements, while another covered software sales. When Apple sells an iPhone, for example, the hardware and software are delivered at the time of sale. ...
The old accounting rules required Apple to defer large chunks of its revenue and recognize the amounts gradually over each product’s economic life. While the details are complicated, the gist under the new rules is that Apple is allowed to record more revenue upfront.
What’s unknowable is how much different Apple’s latest results would have looked had the FASB not amended its standards. There’s no way to tell from the company’s disclosures. Plus, Apple adopted the new accounting principles right before it introduced the iPad. An Apple spokeswoman, Kristin Huguet, didn’t return phone calls seeking comment.
Let me be clear: I’m not opining on whether Apple is overvalued or undervalued, and I’m certainly not making any predictions about its stock price. The point here is that it makes sense for Apple’s earnings multiple to have declined significantly once you consider how the company’s accounting has changed.
The bottom line: Not all iEarnings are created equal.