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Apple shares fall 18% on consumer spending fears

September 30, 2008|Michelle Quinn | Times Staff Writer

SAN FRANCISCO — Apple Inc.'s shares took their biggest tumble in eight years Monday, as worries about slowing spending hit technology stocks even harder than the broader market on a brutal day on Wall Street.

Apple's 18% plunge was triggered by increasing evidence that sales of Macintosh computers were slowing. The company has been on a roll in recent years in large part because of the comeback of its Mac business, which has been growing three times as fast as the rest of the computer industry.

Many big tech stocks were punished Monday. Google Inc. and Yahoo Inc., which rely on Internet advertising, lost 12% and 11%, respectively. Online auctioneer EBay Inc. fell 12%. Video game publisher Activision Blizzard Inc. fell 14%. Intel Corp., Microsoft Corp., Dell Inc. and Hewlett-Packard Co., which all make computer gear for consumers and corporations, were among other companies hit hard.

"No one is immune," said Shaw Wu, an analyst with American Technology Research.

Apple's decline, which came after two brokerage firms downgraded their ratings on the stock, knocked $20 billion off the Cupertino, Calif., company's market value. Its shares reached a 52-week low of $100.59 and closed at $105.26, down $22.98.

Analysts said the sell-off reflected growing sentiment that Americans had started cutting back on computers, televisions and other electronics gear.

RBC Capital Markets analyst Mike Abramsky and Morgan Stanley analyst Kathryn Huberty each said in research reports Monday that consumer belt-tightening appeared to be hurting Mac sales. They predicted slowing earnings growth for the current quarter and fiscal year, which end today.

Abramsky said that a recent RBC survey found a drop in the number of consumers intending to buy Macs and that "a worsening consumer spending environment" would hurt Apple. Huberty said the computer industry's brightest spot would be in PCs that cost less than $1,000 -- the low end of the market that Apple largely ignores.

Even though it's slowing down, Apple's computer business is expected to keep generating double-digit growth through the next year. And the company has other products to fall back on. The iPod has 71% of the digital media player market, and the iPhone, introduced in June 2007, has become the No. 2-selling smartphone in the U.S.

During economic downturns, consumers typically keep buying electronics even as they cut back on cars and other big-ticket items, said Nathan Safran, JupiterResearch's digital home analyst.

"People don't view buying a computer or an iPod as a large purchase, and they are passionate about the consumer electronics they bring home," he said.

The Apple store in San Francisco's Union Square was bustling with tourists and locals Monday evening. Toby Ellison, a healthcare administrator visiting from Tulsa, Okla., owns an iPhone and said she planned to keep buying. Last week she shelled out $2,500 for a Samsung flat-panel TV, she said.

"You have to hang steady," said Ellison, 56. "You have to spend it to keep the economy up."

Tim Herbert, senior director of marketing at the Consumer Electronic Assn., said the electronics industry "is not recession-proof, but it's recession-resilient." For example, he said, sales of flat-panel displays this year are up 40% over the same period last year.

"Many of these products have transitioned from being viewed as luxury products or purely entertainment devices to a true necessity," he said.

Other analysts said Apple's fate, and the fate of all consumer electronics companies, would depend on the severity of an economic contraction.

"What I'm hearing from the distribution chain is that while people didn't stop buying Macs, iPods and iPhones, they are opting to buy the lower end," said Wu, the analyst. "At some point, we worry that even that is impacted."

Ron'na Peterson, a 16-year-old high school student from San Francisco, was browsing through the Apple store with friends Monday but didn't give in to her craving for an iPod Touch. She said she couldn't afford it.

"Everything is going to school, food and bills right now," she said.

--

michelle.quinn@latimes.com

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