Grave Apple Worries for 2013

 | Nov 08, 2012 | 11:35 AM EST  | Comments
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I am calling them FCSs: fiscal cliff stocks. They are the shares that it would make too much sense to sell, simply because tax rates do matter a great deal when you own stocks in taxable accounts.

What does an FCS look like? How about Apple (AAPL)? I got stopped on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange by an old acquaintance who asked me a question that has become the most common one I've heard in the last month: "Am I going to lose my shirt in Apple?" I replied, "Depends on the shirt."

I wasn't being glib. I don't want people to be greedy here. If you are wearing a $50 shirt -- meaning your Apple cost basis, or where you bought the stock, is about $50, where I first started recommending it -- you are wearing a shirt that won't be lost for another 500 points. But you are being greedy as all get-out if you don't take off something -- at least your cost basis, if not more.

You see, there is nothing compelling to drive the stock back higher quickly. As a result, you are stuck trying to figure out whether it is worth betting that the stock can trade back to $700 and you can make $150, or whether it pays to take a profit now and pay the 15% rate on the $500 you could put in your pocket at this very moment.

I have enough respect for Apple the institution that it's not an easy call. But my trip to Bucknell University two weeks ago, where I interviewed Steve Jobs' biographer Walter Isaacson, caused me to gravely worry about 2013 for the company. That's because Isaacson said Apple has nothing in the product line-up that's a big "wow," factor, nothing "OMG." Further, Apple TV -- on which many people are pinning next year's growth -- needs the cooperation of the cable operators in order to pull off. The cable operators are very powerful and doing well, unlike the music companies that Jobs corralled for iTunes, and Cook is not a punisher bully like Jobs, so it is hard to believe the cable companies will cede control of the cable box to Apple.

That means 2013 may not have enough new product introductions of any consequence, as opposed to product tweaks, to propel the stock higher. However, next year will certainly have enough in it to make the stock go lower, thanks to the fiscal cliff's revision in capital-gains taxes. If your taxes double on your gain in Apple, it can be much better to sell now than sell later. I recently sold a lot of the stock for my charitable trust after listening to Isaacson. I couldn't act on it immediately because of my restrictions, but I also never pride myself in calling the exact top on a stock. The trust had a double, and Apple was way too big a position vs. everything else because of price appreciation. That points to the essence of greed.

That said, you may well believe the fiscal cliff is heading for resolution without all that big of a tax hike -- and Apple stock could well fall to a level that simply makes it too cheap on the basis of its dividend and its price-to-earnings multiple, which wouldn't be all that far from current levels. In that case, you might be tempted to hold on for a new product we don't know about that's been developed post-Jobs. It's a tall order, though.

Here's another way to look at it. You want to hold on to your Apple? Write your congressperson. She's in charge right now, not Apple, and last I looked I would rather pay Uncle Sam $1 today than $2 tomorrow.

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