Apple's Surprising Downgrade Parade


It's not often--like almost never--that you see a downgrade parade like the one for Apple this morning, that doesn't follow earnings or some kind of catalyst.

But such is the case today for Apple , from the likes of RBC Capital , Morgan Stanleyand Barclays(though Barclays merely reinitiated with a lower price target.) Morgan Stanley took its target from $178 to $115. RBC went from $200 to $140.

So why now, why all of a sudden and why so much pessimism around these shares?

Well, first things first: fundamentals be damned. I don't think this is necessarily about what Apple itself might be doing wrong. It seems to be far more "macro" than "micro." I spoke to one analyst this morning who says the economy is such a mess right now with so much concern about the consumer, that a year from now no one wants to look back and say "how could you have possibly missed that?" Whether Apple products are still selling well or not.

Research in Motion's lousy numbers and outlook spooked the Street last week, no question. Even if there were strong suggestions that the company's problems stemmed from competition with Apple and not because of some weakness in the market place. And because of RIM's numbers, there's also concern about margin's coming down, even though Piper Jaffray, a long-time Apple bull, says that Apple's insistence of 30 percent is in place merely to keep Wall Street's expectations in line.

If that's the case, that strategy might be backfiring. Oh, and there's also concern about multiple compression. Well, duh! Remember that RIM's numbers would only be a harbinger (maybe) of Apple's smart phone business. Unlike RIM--and this is so important--Apple's got those other two legs supporting the table in Mac and iPod. In other words, RIM hardly provides a peek at what to expect from the far more diversified Apple.

To that end, NPD, Piper and some other market research are all still projecting 5 percent upside to Street numbers for both Macs and iPods. The company has $21 billion in cash in the bank. The "platform" is being adopted. Again, fundamentals be damned.

I suspect that if Apple misses its numbers in a few weeks, this analysis this morning will look pretty spot on. But if Apple blows through those expectations, and beats, these analysts can seek cover under the guise that these concerns today, mirroring the macro-economic condition, could gain a foothold at any time over the next year or so and they thought that now would be a good time to sound the alarm bell.

Trouble is, this kind of the thing tends to become a self-fulfilling prophecy, which means this analysis--any analysis--can't be wrong. Even if it might be. And that's a rough place for investors to be if they're trying to, well, invest.

Sure, you can insist as much as you want that you're not drunk, but if five or six of your friends tell you you're drunk, you're probably drunk. I don't think that's what's happening here. I think instead these reports are suggesting that Apple "might" be drunk, "could become" drunk.

Anything's possible, I suppose. Investors, however, ought to focus instead on what's probable. Analysts might want to try that as well.

Questions? Comments?