Apple Stock's iPad Bounce May Continue, but Risks Are Up Too

Last Updated Mar 16, 2010 5:37 PM EDT

Apple stock (AAPL) reached all-time highs after the company said it would deliver the iPad tablet computer to stores on April 3, more or less on time. Contrarians might be inclined to sell Apple in the belief that its very high price reflects that good news plus a whole lot more.

But they might be wrong. Or not. There are decent arguments both ways.

A look at how the stock behaved after the introduction of other celebrated Apple devices during the last decade, including various iterations of the iPhone and iPod, indicates that the stock could have further to run. But with the stock, the market and expectations for the iPad's success so high, the likelihood of a serious stumble is high also.

Three versions of the iPod - the original launched in October 2001; the Nano in September 2005 and the iPod Touch almost exactly two years later - were greeted warmly by investors. Apple's stock not only rose for several months after each went on sale, but handily beat the Nasdaq Composite Index.

The picture is not as clear for the iPhone. The same pattern held after the first model came to market in late June 2007, with Apple rising faster than the Nasdaq.

The company began peddling the upgraded model, iPhone 3G, in July 2008, just in time for the market meltdown that accompanied the Lehman Brothers insolvency. Apple was in the vanguard of the race to the bottom, dramatically underperforming the market.

That seems to be the exception that proves the rule, at least so far. After the upgrade to the upgrade, iPhone 3GS, came out last June, Apple's stock reverted to its old ways, rising strongly and beating the Nasdaq.

Five out of six ain't bad, but the plunge in 2008, when Apple lost more than half its value, shouldn't be ignored. As I said in a recent post on Apple's valuation, this is a great company, but it would be difficult for it to escape a bear market or steep correction unscathed.

Because it's such a high flier most of the time, moreover, the stock tends to get scathed more than others in a downturn. And after one of the best rallies in decades, the stock market seems due for a pullback, as I have also said, much to my chagrin.

A greater potential risk to Apple's stock could be consumer disappointment with the iPad. Seems unlikely, doesn't it; the iPad is expected to be another in the long line of spectacularly popular gizmos that Apple has developed.

But all good things come to an end. Some commentators have grumbled that the iPad may be little more than an extra-fancy iPod Touch. Google "iPad" and "glorified iPod Touch," and you'll get more than 35,000 hits, including one for "The iPad, a glorified iPod Touch," Facebook profile.

There is also the prospect that Apple's competitors, tired of losing skirmish after skirmish in the innovation wars, will begin offering viable, marketable alternatives to the iPad before the whiz-bang has gone out of tablet computers.

Even if the iPad proves to be the next big thing that so many anticipate, it may not be a big enough thing for Wall Street, which certainly isn't taking a wait-and-see approach. Maynard Um at UBS, for instance, has a buy rating on Apple and a $280 target price, well above the Monday close of $223.84; Richard Gardner at Citigroup also rates the stock a buy with a target of an even $300.

Those assessments seem justified by Apple's track record, but they also raise the odds that sales and earnings from the iPad will be considered disappointing (except to friends of that Facebook group). If that happens, poor returns for shareholders may be the next big thing for Apple.

So much for Apple's stock. Is the iPad itself worth the money? This is what fellow MoneyWatcher Andrew J. Nusca has to say.