Wall Street is having second thoughts about Apple Inc., and that should worry the company's shareholders.
Among the stock analysts who track Apple, about two-thirds now say the company's shares are worth buying, according to data compiled by Bloomberg. That seems like a large share, but it's relatively pessimistic in the grade inflation-prone world of Wall Street stock recommendations. It is the lowest percentage of buy ratings for Apple in nearly three years, Bloomberg data show.
The last time Apple stock watchers were this (relatively) discouraged, Apple shares essentially treaded water for the next two years. The recent past is not necessarily predictive of what happens next, but it also can't be encouraging to Apple optimists.
Allow me to turn back the clock to that prior Wall Street patch of Apple pessimism from April 2015. The company had recently released what turned out to be a blockbuster iPhone model, the first larger-screen Apple smartphone that investors and mobile phone shoppers had been anticipating for years.
Just as Apple's revenue was jumping thanks to those iPhone 6 models, analysts in aggregate worried that Apple might have peaked. In April 2015, just before Apple posted quarterly earnings that sparked a debate about the company's prospects, the share of analysts who said Apple stock was worth buying shifted to a low of 65 per cent.
In hindsight, the stock watchers' relative bearishness was a good barometer. Apple's share price hit a record closing high of $133 in February 2015, fell as much as 32 per cent within 15 months, and then took until early 2017 to crawl back to that February 2015 high. Apple stockholders who held on after Wall Street's peak pessimism had little to show for a two-year roller-coaster ride.
Apple history may not be repeating itself, but it is rhyming. As in the last low-water mark for Apple buy ratings in 2015, the company recently released a radically redesigned iPhone model that investors and mobile phone shoppers had been anticipating for years. Just as in 2015, Wall Street's enthusiasm had been building for more than a year and then soured a tad after the much-anticipated new iPhone model went from rumor to reality.
And as usual, the key issue for Wall Street is whether Apple's best days are ahead or in the rear-view mirror. Analysts spent the last year or more convincing themselves that Apple was about to hit a new vein of iPhone growth thanks to the iPhone X model. Analysts' prognostications have morphed. They still think that Apple's sales and profits will grow robustly for a company of its size, but the expected sources of growth have changed.
Wall Street estimates no longer consistently forecast Apple to sell more iPhones this year than it did in the golden year of iPhone 6 sales. Instead, analysts think that higher iPhone prices combined with plumper sales of ancillary Apple products, apps and internet add-ons will be the main sources of growth in the coming year or more. Hopes are still high for Apple, but there has been a collective rethinking in the investment world of the kind of company Apple is becoming.
The large minority of stock analysts who believed Apple had peaked in early 2015 were correct -- at least for a while. Apple stock watchers are frequently wrong, but it's still unwise to ignore when their collective feelings about Apple turn pessimistic.
Shira Ovide is a Bloomberg Gadfly columnist covering technology. She previously was a reporter for the Wall Street Journal.