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Analyst downgrades Apple stock over market concerns, high expectations

Walter Piecyk says that Apple likely won't release the Apple TV this year and that carrier decisions might hurt the company's share performance this year.

Don Reisinger
Former CNET contributor Don Reisinger is a technology columnist who has covered everything from HDTVs to computers to Flowbee Haircut Systems. Besides his work with CNET, Don's work has been featured in a variety of other publications including PC World and a host of Ziff-Davis publications.
Don Reisinger
4 min read

Well, this is different: Apple's stock, which has been soaring over the last several years, has been downgraded from Buy to Neutral by BTIG Research analyst Walter Piecyk.

Piecyk has now pitted himself against countless analysts who believe Apple's shares will continue to soar. And although he thinks Apple will post a strong fiscal second quarter, he thinks the company is facing three major issues that could stunt its growth: changes afoot in the post-paid wireless industry, the possibility of an iPhone price cut, and the prospect of Apple not launching a "revolutionary product into the market" this year.

By casting some doubt on Apple's share performance, Piecyk is going out on a tenuous limb. Just about everyone in this industry believe Apple's shares will continue to soar. And in the past when the company's stock has been questioned by analysts, it has performed far better than expectations. In just the last five years, Apple's shares are up nearly 565 percent to $631.90.

The biggest issue for Apple is carrier relationships with the iPhone, Piecyk said. In a note to investors today, Piecyk argues that Apple's $600 price tag on the iPhone might soon become too expensive for carriers, which are heavily subsidizing its price to bring more customers to their service. Piecyk argues that customer growth at all costs, once the focus of carriers, is "now starting to eat away at profitability and the performance of those stocks."

The risk in changing policies related to the iPhone might not be as high as it was a few years ago, Piecyk argues. He points to many U.S.-based wireless operators pushing non-Apple products as proof that the carriers are concerned that the iPhone maker could gain too much power.

"As Android's initial popularity continues to fade because of its uneven and fragmented performance and BlackBerry falls further into oblivion, there is renewed hope that Microsoft and Nokia will be able to produce a viable alternative to Apple," Piecyk wrote to investors. "These two giant companies and former industry leaders will clearly be putting significant resources behind any new product launched. We expect wireless operators to join in that investment as they increasingly fear Apple's stranglehold on their margins."

Moving beyond carriers, Piecyk said he's concerned that Apple won't be launching a big product this year, which could disappoint consumers and hurt its stock. He argued that the company will not launch the long-rumored Apple television this year, and he expects the "steady evolution" of Apple's mobile products to continue -- a prospect that could cause the company's new management to face "criticisms."

But just about every other analyst sees things differently. Last week, Piper Jaffray analyst Gene Munster, who has been following Apple for years, said that the company's stock could rise to more than $1,000 per share and reach a market capitalization of $1 trillion. Just a day earlier, Topeka Capital Markets' Brian White also said Apple's stock could rise to $1,000. On average, 53 analysts following Apple's shares believe it will hit $673.80 within the next 12 months. The most common recommendation on the company's stock is a solid Buy.

So, why might Piecyk see things differently? Analysts are notorious for their subjectivity, and in some cases, will be just plain wrong. In other cases, those who see things differently turn out to be right. In other words, regardless of whether an analyst is bullish or bearish on a stock, there's no way to say for sure that their recommendations are logical -- they all use the same data differently, and then apply some guesswork to their craft.

In a somewhat surprising move, Piecyk finished off his sour note on Apple with reassurances that he's not an "Apple hater," saying that he has "completely bought into the Apple ecosystem."

"Our family of six owns 4 iPads, 2 iPhones, 1 iPod Touch, 2 MacBooks, 1 iMac and two Apple TV's; and that is just the stuff in active use," Piecyk wrote. "After dinner, the kids prefer to stream YouTube or play games on the iPads rather than watch the tons of available programming stored on the networked DirecTV HD DVRs. As I wrote in a note earlier this year, the Kindle Fire garnered no interest from anyone in the family."

Good to know, Walter.