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Apple's Investors Wonder If Firm's Best Days Are Over

As Apple shareholders mourn the passing of Steve Jobs, they are forced to ask themselves a tough question: Will the passing of the company’s iconic founder and driving creative force mark the top in its shares?

Steve Jobs attends the Apple Worldwide Developers Conference (WWDC) in San Francisco
Bloomberg | Getty Images
Steve Jobs attends the Apple Worldwide Developers Conference (WWDC) in San Francisco

Investors have had plenty of time to evaluate Apple without Jobs at the official helm and his successor Tim Cook.

After all, two medical leaves by the founder in the last two years did not stop the company from briefly surpassing Exxon Mobil to become the most valuable company in the world this year.

But the timing of Jobs’ death comes at a time when the shares are off more than 10 percent from that all-time high amid what many investors deemed to be a disappointing release on Tuesday of the latest version of the core piece of its product halo: the iPhone.

“It is sad and it seems hard to believe that the stock will not be under pressure,” said JJ Kinahan, chief options strategist at TD Ameritrade . “Mr. Cook had a major disappointment in his first major announcement, but there was some comfort in knowing that Jobs was in the background. Not only was Jobs a master of the press he was the greatest quality control and brand manager of all time and that element will be perceived to be missing.”

The Jobs track record speaks for itself. When he returned to the company in 1997, the stock price was under $6 and the market value below $2 billion.

But after his technological revolution—beginning mostly with the iPod and iTunes and ending with the iPad—now the shares are worth more than $370 and the market value above $350 billion (now second-biggest to Exxon).

“Cook will not have the same latitude with missed execution than Jobs received from investors,” said Dan Nathan an options and equity trader who runs the web site RiskReversal.com. “The next five years for Apple are much going to be far more challenging for the stock and the company than the last five years. The likelihood of them being able to replicate the performance on the product front and thus in the stock is not great as the smart phone and tablet markets mature and become commoditized like PCs.”

Last year, Apple held 28 percent of the smart phone market, second only to a rapidly deteriorating Research In Motion at 30 percent and followed closely by fast-growing phones running Google’s Android system with 24 percent market share, according to eMarketer.com.

Phones running Android will surpass Apple and Blackberry this year, holding 37 percent of the market, estimates the research firm. Apple will hold 29 percent of the market and Blackberry a paltry 20 percent.

“It was very likely Apple would have seen its core products (mobile computing) overtaken by the Android onslaught in the medium term regardless of Steve Jobs health, and/or passing,” said Reggie Middleton, editor of BoomBustBlog.com. “Unfortunately, the Android momentum is building up to a head a the same time Jobs has passed and the mantle has been passed to Cook, and it is inevitable that Cook will catch the fallout.”

To be sure, the drop in Apple’s stock Tuesday as the new CEO unveiled the iPhone 4S was not unusual, even when Jobs took the stage. Apple finished June 2010 lower even after the unveiling of iPhone 4 that month. Of course, part of that was due to the fact that expectations for Jobs’ trademark presentations had become so high investors bid up the shares well before in anticipation of what had become an annual ritual for each June.

While acknowledging the pace of growth under Jobs will be hard, if not impossible to match (iPad was the fastest-selling electronic device ever), many investors are willing to give Cook plenty of time to gain his footing with future product releases. Many said they would be looking to buy on any weakness this week as a result of the founder’s death.

“Steven jobs can't be replaced and we can't expect Apple to have a 100 percent success rate, but we can assume that a brilliant visionary would put in place a capable team to continue at Apple,” said Jim Iuorio, a trader with TJM Institutional services. “People can be confident in owning Apple shares for a long term investment as it remains reflective of its creator in imagination, ingenuity and the ability to stay a step ahead of the pack.”

As evidenced by the outpouring of admiration on Thursday, Jobs was probably the most loved chief executive in corporate America. On Wall Street, the numbers show the stock was definitely the most-loved by analysts. At last count, the shares had 48 ‘buy’ ratings, three ‘hold’ calls and just one sell.

To many investors, this is another contrarian signal that Apple’s future growth prospects—now without Jobs as Chairman—are more than priced into the stock.

It reminds them of Cisco during the Internet bubble when the market value of the router-maker topped $550 billion and some even predicted it would become the first $1 trillion company. Cisco shares have lost three-fourths of their value since March 2000 as new competitors entered the router market, killing margins.

“Just as the world will never be the same as it was with Steve in it, the company and stock will not soon or ever regain it's standing as the miracle machine of the last decade,” said Josh Brown, money manager and creator of The Reformed Broker blog. “Expectations will have to adjust—just as we will have to accept the passing of a giant.”

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