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Fund managers unconvinced by Apple rebound

By David Randall and Edwin Chan

NEW YORK/SAN FRANCISCO (Reuters) - Apple, once a can't-miss stock, is finding it tough to persuade portfolio managers to come back into the fold.

The company's shares are up 17 percent for the year, nearly three times the performance of the benchmark Standard & Poor's 500 stock index over the same time. Yet the company remains one of the most significantly underweighted stocks among large cap fund managers, according to a Goldman Sachs report.

Part of the reason for a lack of portfolio manager enthusiasm is that Apple Inc no longer seems to be the hot growth company of old, fund managers say. It has not introduced a truly new device since the iPad in 2010. In 2012, it began paying a dividend, typically a sign of a company whose days of rapid growth are behind it.

Apple reports results for its fiscal third quarter on Tuesday, July 22. Wall Street is expecting revenue of $38 billion in the June quarter, up about 7.5 percent from a year earlier. The company will also provide a forecast for the current quarter: on average, analysts are estimating revenue in the quarter will grow 8 percent to $40.4 billion.

The company's profits come mainly from its line of iPhones, which faces more competition from Samsung and a coterie of up-and-coming Chinese companies such as Huawei and Xiaomi, smartphone makers that are grabbing market share - particularly in Asia - with reasonably priced yet capable devices.

"The company has been in a new-product slump for a while here, and although it's still growing, it's becoming more of a value play than a growth play at this point," said Skip Aylesworth, a co-manager of the Hennessy Technology fund.

Aylesworth has owned Apple shares for 12 of the past 15 years but does not hold any now because the company does not have any new products that can bring about sustainable high growth rates, he said.

"(Apple's) growth doesn't look that exciting when we can buy into a company that is growing 15 to 25 percent," he said. Aylesworth noted he has positions in companies such as SanDisk and Netflix, both of whose revenue has grow by 10 percent or more in their most recent quarters.

Apple is the largest holding in the $622 million Buffalo Growth Fund, where co-portfolio manager Chris Carter said the company's smartphone business should provide sustainable profit increases.

But Carter said Apple's slowed growth in recent years is a factor "potentially scaring off some growth managers," while its dividend may not be enough to attract value managers.

Apple’s forward price-earnings ratio, which is somewhat reflective of expectations of slowing growth, stands at below 14, compared with the nearly 82 that ultra-growth stock Netflix commands.

Some investors on Wall Street, who point to statements by Apple executives, are not as downbeat. Apple Chief Executive Tim Cook has promised new "product categories" for 2014, while Senior Vice President Eddy Cue said in May that the company's pipeline was the best he has seen in his 25 years at the company.

Many investors expect Apple to make a play for the wearable device market with a smart watch. Analysts also expect the company to introduce two versions of its smartphone this fall, including a 5.5-inch model that thrusts Apple into the market for larger-sized phones that rival Samsung helped popularize.

Overall, only four actively managed funds have 9 percent or more of their portfolios in Apple shares, according to Morningstar data. As recently as 2012, forty-six such funds had a similar stake.

The fact that fund managers are not overly bullish on the company may be a counter-intuitive sign that its shares could continue to rally, said Todd Rosenbluth, director of mutual fund research at S&P Capital IQ. Companies that are overweighted by fund managers tend to plateau as there are few additional buyers, he said.

And Apple's shares typically creep northward in the months preceding a major product launch, as anticipation builds.

"If a number of large mutual fund managers are underexposed to companies that have a positive earnings surprise, the stock could climb higher as those managers add to existing positions," he said.

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