Chris Umiastowski is the growth investor for Globe Investor's Strategy Lab. Follow his contributions here and view his model portfolio here.
Apple is one stock in my Strategy Lab model growth portfolio that hasn't moved very much since our September, 2012 inception. But in many ways, over the last few years, I think Apple has become a more diverse and safe investment. For those just starting out it is one stock I'd suggest adding to your own portfolio.
I'm writing this column on my Macbook Pro computer just like I have for years. But today I'm also enjoying listening to albums that I haven't heard since I was in my twenties. I'm streaming them from my free trial of Apple Music. When the trial is over I'll certainly be forking over $9.99 per month to continue enjoying this amazing collection of 30 million songs. I'll be honest. I was sold on it as soon as I tricked my kids into thinking my personal music library contained every single popular song they could name. For a brief moment they thought I was the coolest dad on the planet. Now that my secret is out there's no way they'll allow me to cancel the service.
Five years ago I probably would not have believed my family would spend a few hundred dollars per year paying for Apple services. But today I'm paying for iCloud backups of my family's Macs, iPads and iPhones, and Apple Music is a new subscription for us. Apple is taking more of my money and I'm actually quite happy about it.
Apple's customers tend to be sticky because the company makes excellent hardware and software. But now with the shift towards more services, I think it only gets better for investors. We've got Apple Pay, Apple Music, iCloud storage and I'm sure there is more to come.
The stock is still a bargain, too. Analysts are expecting the company to earn about $9.15 per share next year, which means the stock trades at about 10 times earnings. This doesn't even factor in the $153-billion in net cash (after subtracting debt). Obviously Apple doesn't need that much cash to run its business, so the adjusted price to earnings ratio for Apple is well under 10.
I believe Wall Street is concerned about Apple's ability to keep growing, and to keep earning such high gross margins on hardware. Last week, Apple stock had its worst week on the stock market since 2013 after it reported the first-ever drop in sales of its flagship iPhone, and posted sharply lower revenue and profits. In addition, influential shareholder Carl Icahn announced he has sold his entire stake in the company. While I'm watchful of this, I'm not concerned. Apple now has over one billion active devices in the hands of customers. In the case of Apple Music, the company just pushed a software update that included a free trial of the service out to it's installed base. Less than a year after launch there are now 13 million paying subscribers. Give it two more years and I bet Apple's paid music subscriptions will far outnumber the industry leader, Spotify, who recently passed 30 million paid subscriptions.
Apple's service business adds a new layer of revenue. But it also creates even more sticky customers. It's becoming harder to leave the Apple ecosystem. This makes it easier for Apple to command higher prices which result in shareholder-pleasing gross margin levels.
It seems like a virtuous cycle. The incredibly large installed base makes it easier for Apple to immediately grow a new service, and the adoption of that new service adds profit and customer stickiness.
With Apple's enormous cash balance it can continue to organically invest or acquire its way into new service businesses. Maybe streaming video to compete with Netflix and traditional TV? What about a subscription service for games on the new Apple TV platform? The possibilities are probably much bigger than my limited imagination.
The bottom line is that Apple is investing in the long-term growth of its business. It won't often launch new product or service categories, like the iPhone, that create dramatic top-line growth. But Apple will probably continue to grow as it leverages its enormous installed base. As an investor, that is music to my ears.
Disclosure: The author also owns Apple stock in his personal portfolio.