Sizzling Apple (AAPL) Run Proves this Overvalued Stock Market is Broken

Apple, AAPL, Tim Cook, Stock market

Apple CEO, Tim Cook has plenty of reasons to smile after the company's stock surged despite declining sales of the iPhone. | Source: Photo by Kena Betancur / AFP

Apple’s (NASDAQ: AAPL) earnings report last night was a roaring success… wasn’t it?

Tim Cook’s company beat expectations on earnings and revenue, and there’s decent demand for the iPhone 11. AAPL stock is up 2% in pre-market trading, set to open at a record high. The broader stock market is following suit with the S&P 500 punching into fresh territory this week.

But if you zoom out and look at the bigger picture, things aren’t quite what they seem. Here’s Apple’s earnings and revenue on a year-to-year basis.

Apple earnings 2018 vs 2019
Apple earnings declined year-over-year from 2018 to 2019. Source: / Statista
  • 2018: $266 billion revenue and $60 billion net income.
  • 2019: $260 billion revenue and $55 billion net income.

As Morgan Creek Capital Management’s Mark Yusko pointed out, the trend if pretty obvious. Apple made less money across the board this year compared to last year. iPhone sales, specifically, are down 9%.

You’d expect those numbers to be reflected in the stock price, but here’s the Apple stock chart over the last two years.

Apple stock APPL price
Apple stock will open at a record high on Thursday after beating expectations on profit and revenue in its quarterly report. Source: TradingView

How APPL hit all-time high despite falling profits

There are two simple tricks at play here. Number one: lowering expectations. Number two: stock buybacks.

The first one is simple psychology. Apple spent the last quarter lowering expectations for earnings and revenue. Then, when they announce higher numbers, they can claim they ‘beat expectations,’ sending the stock higher.

The whole stock market is doing this right now. That’s why 80% of companies have “beaten expectations” this quarter, yet we quietly remain in an earnings recession.

The real culprit: Apple stock buybacks

Stock buybacks are what really distorts the numbers at Apple (and most every major public company).

In simple terms, Apple buys back its own shares from the market. A lot.

“Since 2012, Apple has been buying back shares at the extraordinary rate of $10 billion per quarter. A year ago, it picked up the pace to around $20 billion per quarter” – Apple Insider.

That pace isn’t slowing. In last night’s earnings call, Tim Cook said Apple bought back $18 million of shares in the trailing three months.

Why does this matter?

When Apple buys back stock, it leaves fewer outstanding shares on the open market. So Apple can pump up the ‘earnings per share’ metric.

If there are fewer shares on the market, earnings-per-share can go up, even when actual profit goes down. As CNN puts it:

Buybacks inflate per-share earnings, even when underlying profits stay the same.

US share buybacks stock market

Is the whole stock market propped up on share buybacks?

It’s not just Apple doing this. Analysts say share buybacks are reaching “dangerous levels.” Procter & Gamble pledged to increase buybacks by 60% this year. Wells Fargo also launched a giant buyback program.

The problem is, to execute these huge buybacks, companies need to dip into their cash reserves. So cash holdings are declining across Wall Street.

As reported, the stock market would be an estimated 5% lower if companies didn’t pump up their stock with buybacks.

But with no sign of this practice slowing down, expect to see yet more record highs, even if company fundamentals decline.

Last modified: September 23, 2020 1:13 PM
Ben is a journalist with a decade of experience covering financial markets. Based in London, UK, his writing has appeared in The Huffington Post and he was Chief Editor at Block Explorer, the world's longest-running source of Blockchain data. Reach him at Twitter at _Ben_Brown. Email ben @
Previous Dow Stumbles After Trade War Euphoria Rapidly Unravels Next Did Baker Mayfield Just Have His Ryan Leaf Moment?