Throughout the extraordinary surge in Apple Inc. (AAPL)’s share price, a persistent question has lingered: Why is the stock still so cheap? One overlooked answer may be that Apple’s accounting isn’t as conservative as it used to be.
After topping $500 a share this week, the iPhone and iPad maker now has a $468 billion market capitalization. Yet Apple trades for only 14.3 times its earnings for the previous four quarters -- about the same as the Standard & Poor’s 500 Index’s price-earnings ratio -- in spite of growth that’s far above average. Revenue last quarter rose 73 percent to $46.3 billion, while earnings more than doubled to $13.1 billion.
Many theories have been floated for why such a rapidly expanding company with such loyal customers would trade for so little. Perhaps investors believe Apple will cling to its $97.6 billion hoard of cash and marketable securities, rather than pay a fat dividend. Others have suggested a lack of confidence about the future. It’s a consumer-electronics company, after all, and competition is brutal.
While each of those points has merit, here’s an explanation that hasn’t gotten enough attention: Thanks to an accounting- rule change for which it lobbied, Apple gets to book revenue from sales of bundled products such as iPhones -- which include hardware, software, services and upgrade rights -- more quickly than it used to. In short, one reason Apple’s earnings have been so high is accounting inflation, and the market realizes this.
The easiest way to see the rule change’s impact is to look back at the two sets of numbers Apple reported for fiscal 2009. Originally, the company said it had $5.7 billion of net income for the year on $36.5 billion of revenue. Then in January 2010 Apple retroactively adopted the new accounting principles and restated its previous numbers. The restatement boosted Apple’s fiscal 2009 net income 44 percent to $8.2 billion. Revenue was revised to $42.9 billion, 17 percent higher than originally reported.
Nothing changed economically, of course. Only the accounting did. On the surface, though, Apple’s valuation looked cheaper under the new reporting regime than under the old one.
On Dec. 31, 2009, for instance, Apple had a market capitalization of about $191 billion. Using the fiscal 2009 earnings that Apple initially reported, its price-earnings ratio that day was about 33. Using its restated numbers, the ratio would have been about 23. My guess is a similar effect is occurring today: Had it not been for the rule change, Apple’s P/E ratio would be higher, because the “E” would be lower.
“It would appear that the market continues to consider a significant component of Apple’s revenues and gross profit to be presently unearned and not deserving of a normal market multiple,” said Charles Mulford, an accounting professor and director of the Financial Reporting and Analysis Lab at Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta.
Apple was one of a handful of companies that lobbied the Financial Accounting Standards Board for the new rules in 2009. The impact for Apple seems to have been greater than for most others, probably because of the nature of its products. Dell Inc. (DELL) said the rule switch had no material impact on its results. Microsoft Corp. (MSFT) and Oracle Corp. (ORCL) said the same. Hewlett-Packard Co. (HPQ)’s earnings got a slight boost.
The FASB rule change had two main parts. One related to so- called multiple-deliverable arrangements, while another covered software sales. When Apple sells an iPhone, for example, the hardware and software are delivered at the time of sale. Other deliverables include the rights to future software upgrades and other features.
The old accounting rules required Apple to defer large chunks of its revenue and recognize the amounts gradually over each product’s economic life. While the details are complicated, the gist under the new rules is that Apple is allowed to record more revenue upfront.
What’s unknowable is how much different Apple’s latest results would have looked had the FASB not amended its standards. There’s no way to tell from the company’s disclosures. Plus, Apple adopted the new accounting principles right before it introduced the iPad. An Apple spokeswoman, Kristin Huguet, didn’t return phone calls seeking comment.
Let me be clear: I’m not opining on whether Apple is overvalued or undervalued, and I’m certainly not making any predictions about its stock price. The point here is that it makes sense for Apple’s earnings multiple to have declined significantly once you consider how the company’s accounting has changed.
The bottom line: Not all iEarnings are created equal.
(Jonathan Weil is a Bloomberg View columnist. The opinions expressed are his own.)
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