Anchoring on Apple's Price ($516) Will Hurt Your Returns

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Buying Apple (NAS: AAPL) ? At over $500 per share? It's the most expensive the stock's ever been and it's the largest publicly traded company in the world. How can shares possibly go higher?

Well, that's what I thought ... back when the price was $430 ... and $465 ... and $480. I had first purchased a share of Apple for the Messed-Up Expectations portfolio at $328.62 last June. I had even convinced myself to buy again at a higher price -- $371.36 -- last August. But once the price got above $400, I decided to wait for the ever-famous "pullback" before increasing the portfolio's stake.

Boy, did I pay for that decision! If I had bought at $430, I'd be up 20%. Heck, a 7.6% gain from $480 in a couple of weeks is nothing to sneeze at. But I fell prey to that most insidious of all biases that hurts investors: anchoring. I had bought shares below $400 and I wanted to pay about the same price as before. So long, profits.

Yeah, I know. If I had bought at $480, the share price could easily have pulled back and I'd have a loss. But that's the point. We don't know the future. And I was willing to give up on profit -- I'm a long-term holder of good companies -- just because I was afraid of losing a little bit of money in the short term. Stupid! Especially when you add in that I've been the analyst following the company for the past four years for our flagship service, Motley Fool Stock Advisor.

So I know all about how Apple is battling (NAS: AMZN) and Google's (NAS: GOOG) Android in the tablet space, how it's jockeying against Nokia (NYS: NOK) , Android, and Research in Motion (NAS: RIMM) for smartphone domination. And that just doesn't matter. Apple's halo effect -- the act of buying a lower-end product like an iPhone leading to successive purchases up the food chain to iPads and iMacs -- is in full swing for the company. Here, take a look at this chart, showing the number of units of each product category:


Source: Company press releases. TTM = trailing 12 months.

The success of the iPhone has helped make the iPad a roaring success. And sales of both have helped increase sales of Apple's computers (CPUs). Plus, the rate of CPU sales has increased with introduction of the iPhone and, especially, the iPad.

What's next for the company? A new version of the iPad this year, probably some sort of television, maybe even some share repurchases or a dividend. None of those are reasons to hold back from purchasing the stock.

Plus, at last night's close, the priced-in expectation is that Apple will grow free cash flow by only 12% for the next five years, 6% for the following, and then stagnate to the end of time (discounting at my usual, and high, 15% rate). Really? For the past five years, it's grown FCF by over 60% annually. Even if it suddenly drops down to 20% a year for the next five years, shares would be worth almost $780, 50% higher than now. And given the trends shown in the chart, I don't think it's actually going to slow down anytime soon.

Anchoring. Bad juju for investment returns.

Come Monday, I'll buy more Apple for the Messed-Up Expectations port. Come and discuss this and other investments on my Messed-Up Expectations discussion board, or follow me on Twitter.

OK, maybe you're not convinced that buying Apple above $500 per share is the right move. In that case, take a look at this special report. In it, we reveal the name of the top stock for 2012, one you don't want to miss out on. Click here for your free report.

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At the time thisarticle was published Fool analystJim Muellerowns shares of Apple and Amazon. He's an analyst for theMotley Fool Stock Advisornewsletter service.The Motley Fool owns shares of Apple, Amazon, and Google.Motley Fool newsletter serviceshave recommended buying shares of, Google, Apple, and Nokia; and creating a bull call spread position in Apple. Try any of our Foolish newsletter servicesfree for 30 days. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe thatconsidering a diverse range of insightsmakes us better investors. The Motley Fool'sdisclosure policyis never messed up.

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