Is Apple the Perfect Growth Stock?

by Alexander Green, Chief Investment Strategist
Monday, July 19, 2010: Issue #1304

I’ve often said that my stock-picking approach can be boiled down to this mantra:

Share prices follow earnings.

I challenge you to look back through history and find even a single company that increased its earnings quarter after quarter, year after year, and the stock didn’t tag along.

By the same token, try to find a company whose earnings were flat or declining year after year and the shares kept rising. It doesn’t happen, even in a roaring bull market.

But is growth in earnings per share all you really need? Could it be that simple?

Of course not.

Any company can increase its earnings for a while merely by cutting expenses. But eventually, a firm reaches a point where it can’t cut costs further without damaging the underlying business. (Obviously, if you reach the point where you’re selling off key infrastructure or laying off top people to boost short-term profits, you’re hurting the company’s long-term prospects.)

There are other important factors as well and I can illustrate a few of them by pointing to a near-perfect growth stock…

Want to See If a Company is Growing? Look to These Three Crucial Factors

In order to see robust bottom-line growth, you need to see substantial top-line growth. In other words, sales have to rise, too.

And Apple, Inc. (Nasdaq: AAPL) is doing just that.

  • Sales & Earnings: The company is selling boatloads of iPods, iMacs, iPhones and iPads. In many instances, it’s been unable to keep up with demand. In the most recent quarter, sales jumped 49%. That enabled earnings to soar 90%.
  • Profit Margins: This is another important factor. If competitors can come in and easily underprice you, your business is vulnerable.

But Apple is well-protected with its iron-clad patents on the Mac operating system and many of the key features of its bestselling products. So it’s no surprise that operating margins top 29%. Or that Apple is up 63% over the last 52 weeks, even after the recent market dip.

Over time, Apple has brought down the price of most of its products, but not because competitors were forcing them down. Management did it because they wanted to broaden the potential market for Apple’s products. That’s key.

  • Return on Equity: This key metric is calculated by dividing earnings per share by book value (or net assets) per share.

Why is this important? Because it tells you how efficiently management is deploying the firm’s capital. Warren Buffett – who puts a great deal of emphasis on ROE – says anything above 17% is good. Apple’s return on equity is twice that.

Happy Customers… Happy Shareholders

Apple has done plenty of other things right, too. It’s a consistent innovator and is a world-class marketer. (Its products are so cool, customers find themselves lusting over things they don’t even need.) And it’s done a good job of keeping a lid on costs.

The end result? Earnings per share have boomed over the last decade. And while the broad market has gone nowhere, shares of Apple are up several-fold.

It’s a classic story of a company that keeps its customers coming back because it makes them happy. And the resulting increase in earnings keeps shareholders delighted, too.

Good investing,

Alexander Green