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Apple CEO Tim Cook speaks at the Apple Developers Conference in San Francisco, Monday, June 11, 2012. (Paul Sakuma/AP)
Apple CEO Tim Cook speaks at the Apple Developers Conference in San Francisco, Monday, June 11, 2012. (Paul Sakuma/AP)

The Apple question: Buy low or let ‘er fall? Add to ...

Apple Inc. scared off a lot of conservative investors after the stock hit record high after record high, became the world’s most valuable company and turned smart analysts into drooling sycophants. But now, with the stock down more than 20 per cent from its record high, the stock must be tantalizing some investors on the sidelines.

The decline has followed some unusual moves by the company, which have raised concerns that its winning streak might be threatened. Its most recent product launch was the iPad mini – a smaller version of its trend-setting iPad that was seen as a defensive move by Apple to head off rising competition within the tablet space.

The company has also been running into production problems for its iPhone and recently dismissed two key executives, suggesting the Apple club isn’t such a cozy place right now.

Matthew Yglesias, writing in Slate (via Abnormal Returns ), has even based his bearish argument on the company’s firing of Scott Forstall, the man who oversaw the iPhone’s software. “It’s not that I hold any particular affection for Forstall personally,” he said. “But a company doesn’t normally lose a key player for no reason, and Forstall’s baby – the operating system that runs iPhones and iPads – is what made the company what it is today.”

To be fair, Mr. Forstall’s dismissal had a reason: He apparently wouldn’t co-sign an apology with chief executive Tim Cook over the much-criticized mobile maps service in the new iPhone and clashed with other executives at Apple. But the clash is merely an example of what the company could become without Steve Jobs acting as a forceful personality to keep everyone working together.

“A team of stars is going to be a team of egos. As long as Apple had a superstar at the top, that was OK,” Mr. Yglesias said. “Under Cook it’s not. That hardly means collapse is around the corner, but it’s a big step in the direction of complacency and away from excellence.”

Still, you have to wonder how much of this concern is already built into Apple’s share price: The dip is the most severe setback for the stock since the financial crisis of 2008-2009, even as earnings and sales continue to rise.

For their part, analysts are sticking to their price targets on the stock, with an average target of $760 (U.S.), according to Bloomberg News. In updates on Friday, Piper Jaffray stuck to its target of $900 and an “overweight” recommendation. RBC Dominion Securities maintained a $750 target an an “outperform” recommendation.

Tempted to follow their bullishness? Bespoke Investment Group has an interesting approach: They compared the historical average target prices among analysts to Apple’s historical share price and expressed the result as a spread. On Thursday, the spread was about 28 per cent, meaning that Apple’s share price was 28 per cent below the average target price.

That is quite low, for numbers going back to 2005. According to Bespoke, when the spread has fallen to about 30 per cent over the past couple of years, “the stock has bounced.”

Or, perhaps, analysts are dreaming.

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  • Apple Inc
  • Updated August 17 4:15 PM EDT. Delayed by at least 15 minutes.

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