2019 prediction #1 -- Apple under Tim Cook emulates GE under Jack Welch

People -- well, investors and financial analysts -- seem to worry a lot about Apple. They tend to see Apple as either wonderful or terrible, bound for further greatness or doomed. What Apple actually is is huge -- a super tanker of a company. And, like a super tanker, it’s hard to quickly change Apple’s direction or to make it go appreciably faster or slower. Those who see Apple as doomed, especially, should remember they are worrying about the most profitable enterprise in the modern history of business. Those who see Apple as immortal should remember that’s impossible.

The worry about Apple in 2019 seems to be that the smart phone market may have peaked, or maybe that Apple has made the mistake of building its products so well that they last too long. Then there’s the concern that Steve Jobs is gone and why isn’t Apple reinventing itself and the world yet again through another new product category?

Certainly the Earth is becoming saturated with smart phones, but they still do break from time to time, so I’m guessing what people are mainly worried about with Apple is that it will somehow stop growing. What’s wrong with that?

Wall Street tends to see growth as vital. Funny, they never really explain why that is so. If Apple stopped growing completely but just continued to bank its normal $127 million in profit per day, would that be so bad? Apple could turn to increasing efficiency, and probably shrink the company yet increase earnings every quarter for years to come.

What does that kind of earnings flexibility say about Wall Street’s day-to-day obsession with company financials? That it’s bullshit mainly meant to increase trading churn.

But this is not to say that Apple functions in a vacuum. The company lives in the same world as the rest of us, so it needs plans and sometimes those plans need to change. Maybe in 2019 Apple is going to buy some very big company (probably not). Maybe in 2019 Apple is going to start building autonomous cars (probably not). Maybe in 2019 Apple is going to invent the next iPod, iPhone, or iPad (probably not).

What Apple will do in 2019 is continue its expansion in services because they are more profitable than hardware. As hardware margins decline, service profits will make up some of the difference. One of these services will be expanded video streaming. Apple will in 2019 continue improving its watch business by increasing functionality. Eventually most iPhone users will own an Apple Watch, which suggests hundreds of millions of future unit sales. But most importantly for those who are still looking for a headline, Apple will in 2019 greatly expand its profile in the finance industry. Tim Cook has already started in 2019 along the same path forged by GE’s Jack Welch back in 1981.

This strategic shift started to show just this week with Apple directly financing iPhone sales in China and announcing an Apple credit card with Goldman Sachs.

Up until now Apple has chosen very carefully where and how to flex its financial muscles. It did it through International tax dodges and through clever purchasing, but beyond that how much did Apple make in interest on all those hundreds of billions of dollars stashed offshore? It generally earned 1-2 percent. Anyone could do better than that, even me.

In one sense it’s astonishing that it took Apple this long to get around to more effectively managing its own money, but a lot of that has to do with managing market expectations. Wall Street rewards steadily rising earnings, so the smart way to play it is by massaging company financials into a steadily rising line.

Microsoft did this in the 1990s when that company made so much money that it deliberately bought stuff it didn’t really need just to keep profits from getting too big. What was MSNBC other than a cash dump? If business really did go south, just close down the network and earnings could be instantly restored.

So Apple, which -- like just about every other Silicon Valley company -- historically managed its cash following Dave Packard’s rules for narrowly-traded companies with their founders still running the show, now gets the chance to really manage its money. That earnings potential was always there, just deliberately ignored.

Jack Welch took GE into financial services in 1981, transforming the company and increasing its market cap by 4000 percent over his 20 years. Apple did even better than that in the Steve Jobs years, but Steve is gone and Welch’s techniques don’t require having a Steve Jobs in command. That means they can be added on top of any tech market growth.

Look for Apple to start financing lots of things in 2019. Remember your car dealer would rather lend you money than have you pay cash for that ride because financing is its own profit center. So iPhone prices will continue to rise, but iPhone payments will probably decline as Apple cuts out middle men and efficiently sucks-up that aspect of the phone supply chain. This is how Apple will arrest iPhone market share declines -- by assisting sales and making even more money in the process.

I expect Apple to not just make strategic investments, but participate in strategic financing as well.

Let’s consider for a moment how big a financial player Apple can be. To this point it essentially just had a company checking account. What will happen when it revs-up a financial engineering department capitalized with the roughly $200 billion in cash that Apple doesn’t immediately need day-to-day?

Apple is not a bank. That $200 billion isn’t customer deposits carrying with them some obligation to return the money when asked. Apple has no branches and -- beyond iPhone financing and ApplePay -- is unlikely to have a financial retail presence. What Apple is probably closest to becoming is a hedge fund -- a very big hedge fund in fact.

Apple’s available financial power is approximately equal to that of the world’s two largest hedge funds -- Bridgewater Associates and AQM Capital Management -- combined.

So when someone tells you Apple is in decline or doesn’t have a clue, they are wrong. Apple will continue to compete in its established technology markets as well as new ones. But Apple has also found a $200 billion hobby that will keep it growing for the next decade no matter where the Information Technology market goes.

Thanks, Jack.

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