The Biggest Red Flag for Apple Investors

By Markets Fool.com

As potential weak spots go, tech juggernaut Apple doesn't appear to have many these days.

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The company's stock has more than doubled in the past 18 months, and its latest quarterly report set a new standard for profitability for the entire corporate world. Beyond that, Apple pays its owners billions of dollars every quarter via dividends and share repurchases, and new products could establish badly needed new revenue streams.

However, it's always important to examine counterarguments to your own viewpoints in investing. We have to be wary of our biases. In that vein, here's the single biggest red flag I see when looking at Apple.

After the super cycle
Let me be clear: I'm certainly more positive about Apple's prospects than I am negative. However, I also see potential risk factors that I believe could create short-term headwinds for Apple and its shareholders in coming years.

In my mind, the key question is what happens to Apple's earnings growth momentum next year. I worry that the kind of slowing growth that affected Apple in fiscal 2013 could manifest itself again in the company's upcoming fiscal 2016.

Q1

Q2

Q3

Q4

Apple FY 2013 Revenue Growth

18%

11%

1%

4%

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Source: Apple Investor Relations.

As shown above, Apple's revenue growth slowed dramatically as fiscal 2013 unfolded. As you might imagine, this abrupt slowdown triggered a panic that decimated the stock.

AAPL Chart

AAPL data by YCharts.

It's important to note that downturns in Apple's iPad, iPod, and Mac businesses contributed more to that growth deceleration than weakness in iPhone sales. However, I worry the truly immense momentum in Apple's current iPhone sales cycle will give rise to year-over-year comps so challenging that a similar growth slowdown will be hard to avoid in Apple's next fiscal year, especially given the iPhone's newfound importance in driving the company's overall results -- it represented 69% of Apple's total revenue last quarter.

Some have speculated the upcoming Apple Watch could grow into another financial driver on the scale of Apple's iPad business. If that's the case, the product could assuage some of my growth concerns. However, given the first Apple's Watch's lack of a truly obvious use case, the device might require some additional hardware innovation before realizing its true potential.

Why I'm not selling
The above scenario doesn't necessarily paint the prettiest picture of Apple's medium-term growth prospects, but for several reasons it does not convince me the company's ability to generate returns for its shareholders will be diminished or negated over the long term.

Starting with the near term, Apple's capital return program gives it ample financial leeway to "engineer" continued earnings-per-share growth, should sales slump. The current capital return program is set to expire at the end of the 2015 calendar year, and Apple has roughly $30 billion still earmarked for distribution between now and then. Even though it has turned to financing its payouts with debt rather than repatriating foreign-held cash, Apple still carries a whopping $142 billion in net cash and investments on its balance sheet. Apple is also due for a dividend increase in its upcoming quarterly report, which could help support the stock should growth trend down in subsequent quarters.

Projecting Apple's future sales growth also grows more difficult since we don't have a clear sense of Apple's non-core product development.

The Apple Watch will surely generate some fresh sales. Looking into the next several years, Apple may unveil one or more new products, which could further bolster its overall results. Analysts and commentators practically salivated when word of Apple's Project Titan automotive initiative broke earlier this year. Similarly, Apple is reported to have an updated music subscription streaming service close to launch.

Rumors also persist that the company is quickly working behind the scenes to roll out its own subscription television service as DISH's Sling TV and Sony's forthcoming online TV initiative hasten the "cord-cutting" options coming to market. Apple's foray into the budding smart-home category could also open up any number of potential new sales opportunities.

Hopefully I've convinced you that Apple enjoys many more positives than negatives over the next several years. For the record, the potential for growth to slow in the wake of Apple's current iPhone cycle absolutely gives me pause. However, the key to successful investing lies in holding your winners through their up and their downs, and that's my plan when it comes to the world's largest technology company.

The article The Biggest Red Flag for Apple Investors originally appeared on Fool.com.

Andrew Tonner owns shares of Apple. The Motley Fool recommends Apple. The Motley Fool owns shares of Apple. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.