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Apple takes investors on a wild ride

Apple's stock is extremely valuable and volatile. Its performance affects the global economy, not to mention just about anyone who has a 401(k) or a pension.

December 15, 2012|By Chris O'Brien, Los Angeles Times
  • Some Apple believers say the way to understand the stock’s behavior is to focus on market factors, not bits of news. Above, an Apple Store in New York.
Some Apple believers say the way to understand the stock’s behavior… (Spencer Platt, Getty Images )

SAN FRANCISCO — With only modest expectations, Robert Leitao of Santa Clarita made a decision in 1994 that would change his life. He bought Apple stock.

This was several years before Steve Jobs returned to resurrect Apple, long before the iPod, the iPhone or the iPads that would make Apple the most valuable company in the world. A $1 investment in Apple at the start of 1994 is now worth about $70.

"Even with the recent sell-off, I'm still doing very well with the stock," said Leitao, who works as director of operations at a Catholic church in Burbank. "Apple provided for a down payment on our home for our blended family of four kids."

Leitao is one of the countless people whose lives have been touched by Apple's stock, which has become a global economic force. It is now one of the most widely held stocks, and the most valuable. Even as Apple Inc.'s market value fell to $480 billion on Friday, it was still larger than the gross domestic product of Norway or Argentina, and more than the combined value of Google Inc. and Microsoft Corp.

Yet that astonishing size and economic influence is also what, many analysts believe, contributes to the extraordinary volatility that can make owning Apple's stock a hair-raising experience.

It was inevitable, analysts say, that after Apple's stock rose 74% in the first nine months of this year, a huge wave of selling would occur as fund managers locked in their profits. And yet, in recent years, these huge dips have been followed by even bigger run-ups that led to new record highs, a dynamic that one trader refers to as the "Apple slingshot."

That pattern has some analysts betting Apple will soar above $1,000 a share in 2013, a scenario almost guaranteed to drive the global obsession with the company's stock into an even greater frenzy.

"The impact on shareholders and on the economy is incredible," said Howard Silverblatt, senior index analyst for S&P Dow Jones Indices. "We've not seen anything like this in the modern trading era. Ever."

Even after the remarkable decade of Apple's revival, the company's stock managed to reach new milestones this year. Early in 2012, Apple became the sixth company ever to surpass $500 billion in market value. In August, it became the only company in history with a market value topping $622 billion.

That performance affects just about anyone who has a 401(k) account or a pension. According to FactSet, a research firm that tracks investment funds, 2,555 institutional investors — mutual funds, hedge funds and pension funds, among others — owned stock in Apple, just behind the 2,590 that held Microsoft stock, as of Sept. 30, the most recent date funds had to disclose their holdings. However, the value of that Apple stock held by institutional investors on that day was $427 billion, compared with $172 billion for Microsoft, according to FactSet.

Silverblatt said the only company that has come close to having such a strong influence on the broader stock markets since World War II is IBM in the early 1980s, when the PC revolution was just getting started. But not only is the value of Apple's stock remarkable, so is its volatility. Such large stocks rarely have such big, quick swings.

Apple shares peaked at $702.10 on Sept. 19, up from $401.44 at the start of the year, a run that astonished analysts. But just as remarkable has been its collapse, falling as low as $505.75 in intra-day trading Nov. 16.

"It's just amazing because it's such a large company," said Brian Colello, a senior research analyst at Morningstar. "The company lost about $35 billion in market cap in one day. That's the size of some large-cap stocks."

Yet such swings have become commonplace for Apple stock. Before its latest swoon of 23.4% since its September high, Apple had experienced three previous corrections of more than 10% over the last two years.

The value of Apple's stock and its extreme swings have made researching it and trading it almost a full-time job for some people. Jason Schwarz of Marina del Rey edits EconomicTiming.com, which sends out up to five newsletters each week to its 1,000 clients that focus in large measure on Apple. He also helps run Lone Peak Asset Management, which has about $500 million in assets.

Schwarz says that what he calls the "Apple slingshot" is actually a virtue of the shares.

"The extraordinary volatility is the result of Apple's strength," Schwarz said. "People try to blame the volatility on Apple's weaknesses."

Schwarz and many other Apple believers argue that people are making a big mistake when they try to understand the stock's behavior by focusing on various bits of bad news such as an executive shake-up, the Maps controversy or questions about market share or competition. They have almost nothing to do with the regular hits taken by Apple shares, the argument goes.

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