The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Paul R. La Monica. Other than Time Warner, the parent of CNNMoney, Abbott Laboratories and AbbVie, La Monica does not own positions in any individual stocks.
If aliens visited Earth and just read the financial and tech press for the past few months, they might think that Research in Motion (RIMM) was the most valuable company on the planet and that Apple (AAPL) was a struggling also-ran fighting for survival. (Yes, in my silly, hypothetical scenario the little green men and women apparently don't have the Internet in their galaxy.)
Shares of Research in Motion, which will finally unveil its oft-delayed BlackBerry 10 operating system and some new phones that run on it on Wednesday, have surged nearly 150% since hitting a 52-week low four months ago. Apple, on the other hand, has plunged more than 35% after it hit an all-time high four months ago.
Of course, you have to look beyond the past few months for the true story.
While hopes are high for RIM right now and investors are treating Apple like tech's version of the gang that couldn't shoot straight, RIM's stock is still a clear loser compared with Apple since June 2007, when the first iPhone debuted.
The iPhone completely revolutionized the smartphone business. RIM has been steadily losing market share and reporting drops in revenue as consumers increasingly found BlackBerrys to be antiquated relics. Where are all the apps? Where's the touchscreen keyboard? RIM used to have a stranglehold on corporate and government IT departments but more businesses and bureaucratic agencies are allowing employees to bring their own devices to work to access e-mail.
So what's next for RIM? Can the pride of Canada's tech scene (RIP Nortel) continue its comeback? That's tough to say.
Bulls point to the fact that RIM may finally have a smartphone that's competitive with the likes of Apple's iPhone as well as products from Samsung and others in the Google (GOOG) Android camp, and Nokia's (NOK) new Lumias that run on the Microsoft (MSFT) Windows Phone platform.
But RIM bears retort that the company is too late to the game and that we've been here before. RIM stock rallied hard leading up to the release of its PlayBook tablet in early 2011. That gadget was supposed to be the company's answer to the iPad. Do you know anyone who uses a PlayBook?
You can make a reasonable argument that RIM is still a relatively cheap stock despite its surge over the past few months. Still, you have to make a lot of lofty assumptions.
Currently, the gap between the high and low earnings estimates for RIM on Wall Street stretches about as wide as the distance between the Yukon border with Alaska and Newfoundland. (That's pretty big, eh?)
According to Thomson Reuters, the most skeptical analyst is predicting a loss of $2.82 a share for the fiscal year ending in February 2014, the first full year in which BlackBerry 10 will be on the market. But the most optimistic analyst is forecasting a profit of $4.13 a share.
If that analyst is right, RIM is a steal right now. Shares trade for less than 4 times earnings projections of $4.13 a share. But you're taking a huge leap of faith by using that number.
The consensus earnings estimate for next year is for a loss of 46 cents a share. Sure, it's worth noting that analysts are boosting their forecasts. Wall Street was expecting a 54-cents-per share loss just a week ago. Still, a loss is a loss.>
Sean Udall, an independent trader in San Francisco and author of the TechStrat Report for investing site Minyanville, owns shares of RIM and thinks that the company could earn $1.50 to $2.50 a share next year. He bases that on what he sees as a conservative estimate of 20 million BlackBerry 10 phones sold. He thinks that is doable when you consider that RIM still has about 80 million subscribers. In other words, only 1 in 4 current users would need to buy a new phone. Presumably, they are itching to upgrade.
"The stock has been left for dead," Udall said. "There's no way they shouldn't sell at least 20 million new phones. The tech cognoscenti always want the newest thing."
That may be true. But there already signs of BlackBerry 10 hype starting to subside and it may not be a shock to see investors cash in and proverbially sell on the news following Wednesday's launch.
RIM shares fell more than 3% Tuesday and are down nearly 20% since hitting a 52-week high last week. There are several reasons why the stock might be tumbling.
For one, investors may now be realizing that Apple is not exactly dead. And RIM still faces formidable competition from just about every other smartphone maker. For RIM to keep rallying, it will have to prove without question that the BlackBerry 10 will push RIM back up in the market share race.
The stock also got boosted last week on chatter that Lenovo (LNVGY) might want to purchase RIM. The rumors made some sense considering that Lenovo bought the PC business from IBM (IBM) a few years ago and has done a good job running it. Why not follow Apple's lead and offer smartphones as well as computers?
But Lenovo has since downplayed the talk. What's more, it seems doubtful that Canada's government would approve of a deal to sell RIM to a Chinese company. Canada could play the protecting national interests card like it did in 2010 when it shot down a planned sale of Saskatchewan-based natural resources firm Potash (POT) to Australia's BHP Billiton (BHP).
So at the end of the day, there are still lots of questions surrounding RIM. BlackBerry 10 could be the company's savior -- or saviour for you RIM fans up north. But it's almost time for the speculation to stop and for consumers to decide if BlackBerry 10 is worth the hype. That's why one value investor is still steering clear of the stock.
"BlackBerry 10 looks like it could be a nice addition to the smartphone market, but it still looks like it's all Apple and Android," said Brian Frank, president of Frank Capital Partners in New York. "If Apple and Android keep getting more corporate and government customers, RIM will be in a tough position. The stock may look cheap but only if you believe in its future earnings."
Research in Motion is hoping to get its groove back with the upcoming launch of BlackBerry 10, but whether it will work is anybody's guess.
For now, investors are willing to give the company somewhat of a chance. Shares of RIM (RIMM) rose 5% Thursday following news that the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency will begin a pilot program early next year to test the company's new smartphones and MOREHibah Yousuf - Dec 13, 2012 1:00 PM ET
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