It may be the biggest, best, and best-known component of the Dow Jones Industrial Average (DJINDICES: ^DJI), but shares of Apple (NASDAQ: AAPL) have conspicuously trailed the blue chip index of late. The Dow's up to the tune of 13% for the past six months, while Apple is barely breaking even for the timeframe.
Its big gains logged in 2020 of course only made Apple stock more vulnerable to the chip shortage as well as the “big tech” antitrust crackdown continuing to gel this year. Congress is considering six different pieces of legislation that could crimp Apple's grip on consumers, if not force an outright restructuring of the company. Investors are understandably hesitant.
We're in a scenario, however, where it just might pay to play the role of contrarian. That's the fancy way of saying you should assume everything's about to reverse its present course, boosting Apple at the expense of the Dow as a whole.
Don't misread the message. The brewing regulatory threat to Apple is real; CEO Tim Cook reportedly even called House Speaker Nancy Pelosi to stave off the impending legislation. No dice. Intellectually honest investors, of course, had to know this day of reckoning was coming sooner or later.
The computer chip crunch is another headache that's kept buyers at bay. Would-be Apple investors are content to remain on the sidelines, waiting for more clarity.
At least some of those sidelined would-be Apple buyers are stepping into anything and everything else instead though. The S&P 500 (SNPINDEX: ^GSPC) joined the Dow in reaching record highs earlier this month, and the Nasdaq Composite (NASDAQINDEX: ^IXIC) isn't far behind. This strength has shocked traders anticipating the usual summer weakness behind the whole “sell in May and go away” thing. The momentum is still bullish. Not participating means you're leaving money on the table… even if Apple isn't contributing much to the marketwide rally.
There are two big premises most investors just aren't fully seeing here, however. Together, they just might make you rethink this described dynamic.
The first of these two noteworthy premises is the market's typical behavior during the summertime. The momentum is still bullish in defiance of the calendar to be sure. But, bullish strength during the early days of summer doesn't preclude weakness later in the summer that would bring the broad market back to its average year-to-date performance. Indeed, if anything this degree of bullishness thus far sets the stage for an even bigger pullback that puts the market's performance back on course, so to speak.
And for perspective, in the average year the Dow is up 3.6% by late June. This year it's up an incredible 10.9% so far.
The second idea is a bit more complicated.
When investors see (or at least fear) a market correction is in the offing, as a group they don't necessarily dump stocks altogether. There's a subtle — and sometimes not-so-subtle — shift into defensive names like utilities or consumer staples. Makes sense. These industries are going to do reasonably well regardless of the environment.
Over the course of the past several years, however, what constitutes a “safe” name capable of holding up against the headwind of a marketwide correction has evolved. Consumers may skip a trip to the mall or postpone a vacation. But, Apple's created such a degree of customer loyalty and fandom that it's unlikely current iPhone owners will take a pass on their next opportunity to upgrade their device.
The evidence? Even when the pandemic was raging in September of last year, cellphone reselling platform SellCell found that four out of ten iPhone owners intended to upgrade when the iPhone 12 became available later in the year; BankMyCell suggested the number was closer to half of all iPhone owners. In October, RBC Capital Markets reported a little more than one-third of current iPhone owners were participants in Apple's annual upgrade plan, while another one-fourth said they intended to sign up for the continual upgrade agreement. In a similar and more recent vein, SellCell recently reported survey results indicating Apple's iPhone brand loyalty currently stands at a record-high 92%.
Read between the lines. Apple is a surprisingly defensive play should things turn tough for the overall market.
Keep it in perspective
A marketwide correction wouldn't drive Apple shares upward every single day of any correction, of course. On any given trading day three out of four stocks move in the same direction as the market. Apple shares would most definitely be fighting a headwind.
Think bigger-picture though, and think strategically. Should a little bit of market weakness turn into something more prolonged and investors clamor for companies they can count on in tough times, Apple's antitrust woes won't matter quite as much. Loyalty among iPhone owners will matter a little more. That's just enough edge to snap this stock out of its lull.
And if the overall market continues to buck the calendar and continue marching higher? Well, Apple's future is still more than bright enough to make it a core long-term holding. The company's always found a way to push through challenges on par with the current chip shortage and antitrust campaigns. This recent weakness is a gift from that perspective as well.
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James Brumley has no position in any of the stocks mentioned. The Motley Fool owns shares of and recommends Apple. The Motley Fool recommends the following options: long March 2023 $120 calls on Apple and short March 2023 $130 calls on Apple. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.