The Next Game Changer for Apple Stock?


Apple stock slid during Tuesday's trading session despite a strong surge in the broader market that saw the S&P 500 climb more than 0.5%. One possible reason for the decline is a research note out of Citigroup that strongly suggests margins will continue to face pressure as consumers opt for lower-priced devices. Apple stock, which topped $700 last fall, fell below $400 recently and has traded in the mid-$400 range ever since. Regardless of Cupertino's ability to innovate, if Wall Street sees margins come under pressure, this may be the game-changing catalyst needed to break the current trading range. Unfortunately, it looks like it could be to the downside.

Opinion in the Citi on Apple stock
In a recently released research note, Citi's Glen Yeung reiterated his neutral rating, citing concerns over margin pressures at Apple. The driving force behind these pressures, in Yeung's opinion, is a product mix that is shifting toward cheaper products. Not only is Apple selling more older iPhones -- including the iPhone 4 and iPhone 4S -- it is poised to release a cheaper iPhone. He also referenced the possibility that the company may release cheaper version of the iPad to be more competitive with various Google Android tablets, like the Nexus 7 or Kindle Fire.

Last March, IDC reported that Android tablets had continued to expand their market share at the expense of iOS devices. A reasonable driver of this trend is the price difference that exists between Android and iOS tablets. According to the report, Android will command 48.8% of the market in 2013, relative to 46% for iOS. Additionally, IDC sees a significant shift to smaller tablets as the preferred size.

There are rumors that Microsoft wants to get into the cheap tablet game with the possibility that it will acquire the remaining piece of Nook Media that it does not own. This would allow the company to round out its own tablet offerings beyond the Surface RT and Surface Pro, each of which carries much higher price tags. While an insider denies the rumor, the acquisition could make the company's tablet offerings more interesting. Competition is the small tablet space from both Google and Microsoft has kept pressure on Cupertino and had a negative impact on Apple stock.

Ultimately, Yeung sees the margin pressures that the weakening product mix creates as a negative for Apple stock, and a significant reason that shares will remain range-bound looking ahead. Adding to this pressure is the fact that global growth rates are slowing based on mobile saturation. These combined pressures may keep Apple stock from returning to previous highs in the foreseeable future.

Market pressures
Beyond company-specific headwinds, the overall position of the equity market should be a concern for anyone interested in Apple stock. Stocks have been on an impressive run, but it cannot last indefinitely. There is a strong argument that the rally has been created by the action of the Federal Reserve. As an increasing contingent of the FOMC begins to consider slowing or reversing the current policies of quantitative easing, there is real concern that the rally could fizzle.

The single greatest threat to Apple stock over the next several months is the direction of the broader stock market. In the absence of a real game-changing product, Apple will be subject to the vagaries of the overall equity market. Even if stocks can continue to run higher from here, a correction is likely over the course of the summer. When this happens, Apple stock is likely to fall to new near-term lows.

There's no doubt that Apple is at the center of technology's largest revolution ever, and that longtime shareholders have been handsomely rewarded with more than 1,000% gains. However, there is a debate raging as to whether Apple remains a buy. The Motley Fool's senior technology analyst and managing bureau chief, Eric Bleeker, is prepared to fill you in on reasons to buy and sell Apple and the opportunities left for the company (and your portfolio) going forward. To get instant access to his latest thinking on Apple, simply click here now.

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Fool contributor Doug Ehrman has no position in any stocks mentioned. The Motley Fool recommends and owns shares of Apple and Google. It owns shares of Citigroup and Microsoft. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.

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