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Investing in the Apple Supply Chain

April 23, 2018 | Global/Emerging Markets

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Whether you love or hate Apple, it's impossible to deny that one of the most popular technology products over the past 10 years has been the Apple iPhone, with each version's product launch a significant event year after year. Here's one way we think about gaining exposure to this technology trend.

Every year Apple publishes a suppliers list. This list, which represents the most important companies Apple works with to bring its products to market, is packed with non-U.S. companies. Our global technology team breaks down this list into four manageable groups to help identify potential investment candidates. The four groups—and our thoughts about them—are summarized below.

Commodity Suppliers

Commodity suppliers are crucial to Apple's success but offer products with low barriers to entry and multiple competitors. Examples include companies that make the iPhone's casing and display, and those that handle its assembly.

Typically, three or four of these companies serve the same function in the supply chain, and for each product cycle, no one knows how Apple will allocate its work among them.

In addition, with many players in each category, there is little to no competitive or technological differentiation among these companies, resulting in negligible pricing power, lower margins, and higher earnings volatility. As a result, these companies can be easily disrupted or disintermediated from one year to the next.

We therefore tend to avoid Apple's commodity suppliers, because it is too difficult to gain confidence in their ability to compete over the longer term.

A-list suppliers are more compelling investments to us because of their stronger competitive positions and higher margins.

A-List Suppliers

A-list suppliers are typically the sole suppliers of highly specialized technological components such as central processing units, organic light emitting diode displays, and power management integrated circuits (PMICs).

With every cycle, the iPhone has numerous upgrades to entice customers to purchase a new phone. Given that Apple ships a new model every year, it isn't feasible to switch suppliers to achieve better value. In some cases, there may not even be a company that has the technology and/or capacity that would allow Apple to transition away. Because it would be too risky or expensive for Apple to abandon these companies, they are more akin to business partners.

Apple will often design new features with its A-list suppliers. A good example of an A-list “partner” is a Taiwanese company that supplies the iPhone camera lens, which improves markedly with each product release.

A-list suppliers are more compelling investments to us because of their stronger competitive positions and higher margins. We are also attracted to their more consistent earnings profile, as they generally experience price increases with each iPhone cycle.

Mid-Level Suppliers

Mid-level suppliers reside between the commodity and A-list suppliers. Their products require more technological expertise and offer more differentiation than those of commodity suppliers, but less than that of A-list suppliers.

Their products are less likely to change with every new phone, and there may be one or two competitors seeking to take market share. Examples of mid-level suppliers are makers of radio frequency components or multilayer ceramic devices.

While their investment horizons can often be much shorter (typically only one product cycle), mid-level suppliers can be compelling investments. As we conduct our due diligence on these companies, we try to identify those that are gaining market share and/or seeing component price increases.

Emerging technologies create an entirely new set of suppliers and a lot of market chatter.

Emerging Technologies

Every few years a significant new technology is integrated into the iPhone. This year, it was the iPhone X incorporating 3-D-sensing technology for facial recognition, among other things.

These emerging technologies create an entirely new set of suppliers and a lot of market chatter, but they are typically the most difficult opportunities to understand.

The upside potential can be significant. For example, with more than 100 million new 3-D sensors being shipped to Apple, the current iPhone cycle could be game-changing for the suppliers that are able to take market share and make a good margin.

One company that provides the laser component for Face ID (which maps the human face using 30,000 invisible dots) saw its stock increase 250% in 2017.

Apple technology plans and supplier information are closely guarded: it is difficult to predict which company is making which components, let alone each company's market share and profitability.

Why It Matters

A-list companies have historically outperformed with less volatility relative to commodity suppliers, and they tend to have higher margins while trading at higher price-to-earnings (P/E) multiples. There is also significant outperformance potential from the mid-level suppliers if they are gaining share.

A-list companies have historically outperformed with less volatility relative to commodity suppliers.

Historical performance trends before and after new iPhone launches are instructive.

For example, we saw a significant divergence between the share price returns of different supplier groups from January 1, 2017, to the iPhone X launch on September 12, 2017, and during the subsequent two-week period post-launch. The stocks of commodity suppliers, on average, increased 26%, but in the two weeks after the launch, they were down 7%. Meanwhile, the stocks of A-list suppliers, on average, increased 33% leading up to the launch, and were down only about 2% in the two weeks after the launch.

Longer-term performance further illustrates the point. Looking back to 2012, our research shows that A-list suppliers were the best-performing group with the least volatility, followed by mid-level suppliers, and finally commodity suppliers.

Past performance is not a guarantee of future results. References to specific securities and their issuers are for illustrative purposes only and are not intended as recommendations to purchase or sell such securities. William Blair may or may not own any securities of the issuers referenced and, if such securities are owned, no representation is being made that such securities will continue to be held. It should not be assumed that any investment in the securities referenced was or will be profitable.

Drew Buckley, CFA, CPA, is a research analyst on William Blair's Global Equity team.