While investors have sent shares of Apple Inc. (AAPL) up near 28% year-to-date (YTD) through Tuesday close, not all are so upbeat on the future of the Silicon Valley iPhone maker. In fact, analysts on the Street are currently the most bearish on Apple in 22 years, when in 1997, Steve Jobs returned as interim CEO in an attempt to revive the crisis-ridden PC maker, as reported by Bloomberg.
In a note to clients on Monday, Rosenblatt Securities downgraded Apple shares to sell, bringing the total number of bearish Apple analysts up to five out of the 57 ratings tracked by Bloomberg. Shares of the Cupertino, Calif.-based company have not had that number of sell ratings since the late 90s, per Bloomberg data. At that time, the struggling tech company was yet to release its business-saving iPod, which it debuted in 2001, or its iMac computer, which was released in 1998.
Equally striking is that Apple’s consensus rating -- a proxy for the company’s ratio of buy, hold, and sell ratings -- is at 3.76, its lowest level in 15 years, when it bottomed in 2004. In January, the number of firms with buy ratings dipped below 50% for the first time in a decade and a half.
The ratings suggest that investors could suffer huge losses even as the stock has significantly outperformed the broader market this year. Analysts cite various headwinds that threaten the tech titan, including a US-China trade war that could decimate Chinese consumers' demand for Apple products and lackluster numbers for Apple’s core iPhone segment, which still accounts for 60% of sales despite the firm doubling down on new services businesses to offset a secular decline in its main market.
In January, Apple shares took a tumble as the tech giant lowered its sales guidance for the first time in nearly two decades, flagging waning demand for its smartphones. Global competition, particularly in key markets like China, which accounts for 20% of revenue, is seen as a major headwind. Further, the country is a critical part of Apple’s supply chain, and any new tariffs could disrupt the business by interfering with the production of key components and hindering profits.
According to supply chain experts interviewed by Business Insider, it could take Apple years to shift some of its product production out of China in the wake of a trade war. This is due to the fact that other countries simply lack the infrastructure or trainer labor for the iPhone maker to shift a significant amount of production there, per the experts. Apple currently outsources production of its devices to Foxconn and Pegatron, two Taiwanese contract manufacturers which have sprawling networks of factories across China and other countries.
Rosenblatt’s Jun Zhang expects Apple to “face fundamental deterioration over the next 6-12 months.” He cited flat sales for the iPhone in June and a potential slowdown in production of the iPhone XR. Zhang also warned that Apple could see its burgeoning service business lose momentum.
“We believe there is less reward for owning Apple stock after the recent stock rebound from stock buybacks and the stable second quarter guidance," wrote the Rosenblatt analyst.
Last week, Citi wrote that Apple’s China sales “could be cut in half” due to “a less favorable brand image desire.”
Not all are so bearish. To be sure, 23 firms still recommend buying the stock, and another 21 have hold ratings, per Bloomberg data.
Apple bulls include Wedbush analyst Daniel Ives, who reiterated an outperform rating on Apple stock and indicated that he was “incrementally more positive on global iPhone demand” following checks with Apple supplier in Asia.
Apple’s third quarter results are slated to come out on July 30th.