Apple stock is cheapest since 2000 on slow profits

New York - The cheapest Apple in 12 years are encouraging some of the world's biggest investors to bet that the stock will rebound after losing 33 percent of its value on concern about slowing profit growth.

The world's largest company by market value is trading at a 29 percent discount to the Standard & Poor's 500 Index, near the widest gap since December 2000, data compiled by Bloomberg show. While analysts have cut price targets by 21 percent since the stock peaked in September, the shares would rise 41 percent to $661 if investors valued the stock at the price-earnings ratio of the S&P 500, the data show.

Apple has lost more than $200 billion in market value as increased competition and a lack of breakthrough products threaten to reduce profit margins. The pessimism is exaggerated because the company still dominates the smartphone and tablet markets and has enough cash to return to shareholders, according to Gamco Investors, Thornburg Investment Management and Brown Advisory. Their funds bought Apple shares as they slumped from their record high in September.

"Apple is being held to a standard unlike any other company," Howard Ward, the chief investment officer at Rye, N.Y.-based Gamco, which oversees $36.7 billion, said in an e mail last week. His firm bought Apple shares at about $500 this year. "Apple is not the zombie it is being valued like."

The stock closed Tuesday at $467.90 a share, leaving the company's market value at $439 billion, compared with an all- time high of $658 billion in September. The shares are valued at 10.6 times reported earnings, trailing the S&P 500's multiple of 15, data compiled by Bloomberg show. The last time the Cupertino, Calif.-based company traded at such a discount, it went on to rally 47 percent in 2001.

Investors have grown concerned about whether Chief Executive Officer Tim Cook will be able to roll out products that will fuel growth after the death of co-founder Steve Jobs, who oversaw the introduction of the iPod, iPhone and iPad. The company has a team of about 100 product designers working on a wristwatch-like device that may perform some of the computing tasks now handled by the iPhone and iPad, two people familiar with the company's plans said.

Analysts predict Apple stock will climb to $613.40 over the next 12 months, according to the median projection compiled by Bloomberg. That is down from $780.69 in September. Among 64 analysts, 51 have the equivalent of buy ratings while two advise investors to sell, the data show.

Cook offered a dividend last year for the first time since 1995. The company said on Feb. 7 that it's in "active discussions about returning additional cash to shareholders" after David Einhorn's hedge-fund firm Greenlight Capital said Apple is hanging on to too much of its profit.

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