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Apple Analysts See Little Room for Error After Stock Rally

Ryan Vlastelica

(Bloomberg) -- Apple Inc. shares have been on a nearly uninterrupted move higher over the past several months, and analysts are starting to ask whether the rally might be overdone.

The stock has already risen more than 8% in 2020, an advance that builds on 2019’s 86% rally, the biggest one-year percentage gain in a decade. Shares have hit repeated records over the advance, which has solidified Apple’s position as the largest U.S. stock by market capitalization.

Shares of the company slipped 0.1% on Thursday.

The gains have come on growing optimism over the company’s 2020 prospects, driven by improved China demand, growth in its services business, and strong sales expectations for wearable products like AirPods or the Apple Watch. In addition, it is expected to debut a 5G version of its iPhone this year, a product that is almost universally expected to be a blockbuster.

“There is a perception of relative safety” in the stock, but the rally has resulted in a “historically high valuation,” according to KeyBanc Capital Markets. The share price “appears to require a sustained re-acceleration in top-line growth that we do not anticipate, while leaving little room for error.”

In a note dated Jan. 22, analyst Andy Hargreaves reiterated his sector-weight rating on the shares, writing that the valuation “limits the potential for further multiple expansion” while exposing investors to a number of risks, including potential declines in average selling prices for the iPhone, “stagnating” user growth and brand risk in China.

Apple is scheduled to report its first-quarter results later this month, and despite its long-term concerns, KeyBanc wrote the quarter should be “very good relative to consensus estimates.” This view was echoed by BofA, which also forecast a “strong” quarter, adding, “who doesn’t.”

While BofA has a buy rating on the stock and raised its price target by $10 to $340 on Thursday, analyst Wamsi Mohan noted that upside potential over the longer term looked “more hazy.” The valuation is “at the high-end of the long-term range,” he wrote, and “further positive estimate revisions beyond [the first-quarter results] may be hard to achieve”, given headwinds related to tariffs, gross margins and operating expenses.

The average price target on Apple shares stands around $296, according to data compiled by Bloomberg. While this is up from the $268 average at the end of 2018, it represents downside of nearly 7% from the stock’s most recent close.

(Updates to market open in third paragraph)

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