Apple (NASDAQ:AAPL) has had a strange run in recent times. After punching in a 43% return in 2014, Apple stock floundered the following year, losing investors 2% of market value. The loss in and of itself isn't a big deal -- this is the vaunted AAPL, after all. But after so many years of outperformance, Apple stock is starting to look rather human.
The Two Sides of Apple Stock
Suddenly, there are two sides of AAPL that is best epitomized between whales Carl Icahn and Warren Buffett. Several months ago, Icahn quickly dumped out of his position in AAPL, taking with him $2 billion. The famous -- and to many, infamous -- activist investor cited surprisingly poor iPhone sales, along with broader weaknesses in China, that pushed him to hit the bid.
In contrast, Warren Buffett's Berkshire Hathaway (NYSE:BRK.A) disclosed an Apple stock position in excess of $1 billion. The reasoning is quite simple -- Apple is the world's most valuable brand. It also has enough money to be its own country, and a fairly competitive one at that. And the company has seen its fair share of troubles, and has always managed to right the ship, something even bearish Icahn conceded.
So how should investors read into Apple stock's latest trades? Since the end of June, AAPL stock is up 20%, while year-to-date, the tech giant is closing very quickly on double-digit returns. That contrasts sharply with the steep losses that have occurred in both 2015 and 2016 due to less-than-stellar sales.
The Bullish Argument for AAPL
From a long-term perspective, I side with Buffett. The tech industry is rapidly changing as a result of cloud computing. Four years ago, traffic in the cloud amounted to 259 exabytes. To put this into perspective, one exabyte is big enough to store 50,000 years worth of DVD movies. By the end of next year, cloud traffic is expected to reach 1,800 exabytes.
The bottom line is this -- lose in the cloud, and you lose the war altogether. Apple understands this quite well. Recently, the company announced that their cloud and internet services divisions will be physically merged at their Cupertino headquarters. Synergy is an often mocked concept, but when it comes to the cloud, every bit of effort counts.
I expect AAPL to be the winner that Steve Jobs originally envisioned. At the same time, the road will not be an easy one. The cloud infrastructure is already dominated by Amazon (NASDAQ:AMZN), which has a 31% market share. In a distant second-place is Microsoft (NASDAQ:MSFT), which has amassed 9%. Close behind are International Business Machines Corp. (NYSE:IBM) and Alphabet Inc. (NASDAQ:GOOGL). Light competition this is not.
Beware the Change in AAPL
Still, it's hard to imagine AAPL not successfully responding to the challenge. Because of that confidence, Apple stock should still be considered a viable investment. But what we need to understand now is that AAPL is no longer a growth play. Gains will come, but they will come in steady increments.
Back in the 1980s, Apple stock averaged 65 cents. In the 1990s, the average jumped to $1.25, then to $7.90 in the 2000s decade. Over the past seven years, shares prices average over $75. What that means is a growth rate of almost 500% in the three-and-a-half decades of Apple's existence. That's a phenomenon that is unlikely to be repeated.
What AAPL is now is a value play. Strong balance sheet, predictable cash flow, and stable returns -- characteristics that are appreciated by old money like Warren Buffett and fund managers of 401k plans. It's not the most exciting thing in the world. But if you can handle that paradigm shift, Apple stock will fit the bill quite nicely.
Disclaimer: I do not own the stocks mentioned in this article.