Is Google a safer bet than Apple?

June 27, 2013

Apple shares closed below $400 Wednesday for the first time since April, deepening its recent stock slump.

The company has already lost its claim to being the most valuable company in the world, returning the title to Exxon Mobil. In fact, as The Wall Street Journal reported Tuesday, by one measure, the firm isn’t even the most valuable technology firm in the world. Using a measure called enterprise value, which factors in debt and strips out cash, Apple is actually less valuable than Google. So while Apple is still the much bigger fish by market cap — probably the most common shorthand measure used to estimate a company’s net worth — some may find themselves troubled when looking beyond its $145 billion pile of cash.

So what’s up with Apple shares these days? Eric Bleeker, an technology analyst for The Motley Fool, said he thinks the answer is pretty clear: People are wary of putting their money into companies that make hardware.

Apple, he noted, is not alone in facing this problem. The firm’s biggest rival for smartphone manufacturing is Samsung, which Bleeker noted also is feeling a squeeze on the market as investors find they’re more comfortable investing in companies that produce what goes on smartphones rather than the smartphones themselves.

That’s why Google seems like a smarter investment right now, he said, noting growth in Google’s advertising and the company’s continued dominance when it comes to smartphone operating systems.

“There are a lot of ways Apple can lose, but not a lot of ways Google can lose,” Bleeker said. “That’s why people are willing to pay two to three times as much.”

Looking at enterprise value rather than market cap can be a good measure sometimes, Bleeker said, particularly if it seems a company is only trading for its cash value, or seems like it will blow the money on acquisitions in an attempt to get ahead. And, he noted, it’s good to think critically about company’s cash reserves and take into account , for example, how much tax they may owe on that cash and how those payments affect the company’s overall value.

In Apple’s case, Bleeker said, this may just be another way to pick on the company for holding so much cash in its reserves — a practice that investors haven’t been shy about criticizing in the past. Even after Apple announced it would increase its dividend and stock buyback plan, the firm has still gotten calls to return more of its cash to investors.

“I think for lot of people Apple’s cash hoard seems so dramatic,” Bleeker said. “If [Apple] were taking more larger measures to return some of that capital, we might see people pay more respect to it.”

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Hayley Tsukayama covers consumer technology for The Washington Post.
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