By David Randall
NEW YORK (Reuters) - The slump in Apple Inc's share price from its September high has badly dented the returns of hundreds of mutual funds that had maintained outsized holdings of the stock. But some went sour on the iPhone-maker just in time.
Of the 321 funds that had more than 5 percent of their assets in Apple shares at the beginning of 2012, 53 of them - or slightly more than 16 percent - significantly cut back their weighting of the company before the plunge gained momentum, according to data from Morningstar.
Whether it was a case of simple risk management, concerns that the company's share price had peaked, or a bit of luck, fund managers who drained Apple from their portfolios helped drive down the price of the stock. As a result of their early shift in sentiment, they appear quite prescient now.
Denver-based fund manager Tom Marsico sold his firm's entire stake in the company between November and January - most of it in November before things got really ugly. At about $2 billion of the firm's $31 billion in assets under management, the Apple stake made up between 6 to 8 percent of the domestic portfolios at the time he began selling.
His concern: that the company had saturated the market with its products so much that there was "no one left to sell to."
Frank Caruso, portfolio manager of the $1.7 billion AllianceBernstein Large Cap Growth fund, began underweighting the stock in the spring, believing Apple was losing the pricing premium for its products. George Sertl, a portfolio manager of the $891 million Artisan Value Fund, sold as Apple raced through his price targets, using some proceeds to buy Samsung instead.
The result: Investors in these funds largely sidestepped the implosion of one of the most widely-held U.S. stocks. Apple's share price ended Tuesday at $458.27, down 35 percent since hitting a record high of $705.07 on September 21, brought down by concerns ranging from its lack of "cool" new products to increased competition from other mobile phone manufacturers. After the company missed Wall Street's quarterly revenue estimates on Jan 23, the shares dipped 12 percent the next day.
The drops in the company's share price were painful for big individual shareholders. The value of Apple chairman Arthur Levinson's 239,541 shares fell by $59.1 million between late September and January 28, while board member and former U.S. Vice-President Al Gore's stake fell by $25 million. CEO Tim Cook's paper wealth of 1 million restricted shares, which will fully vest in 2021, fell approximately $247 million.
The declines hit ordinary fund investors as well. At an average of 7.6 percent of fund assets, Apple was by far the most heavily-held stock among large cap growth funds as of the end of November, according to data from Lipper, a Thomson Reuters company. The next most-held company, Google Inc, made up an average of 3.2 percent of assets at the end of November.
That concentration on one stock - albeit one with a history of double-digit annual gains - made many mutual funds riskier for investors, exposing their savings to the ups and downs of one company. And while Apple currently makes up about 5.8 percent of the Russell 1000 Growth index, the main benchmark that growth funds are compared to, many fund managers took on much larger stakes.
The $30.4 billion T. Rowe Price Growth Stock fund, for example, increased its stake in Apple to 12.2 percent of its assets as of November 30 from 9.1 percent at the end of 2011, according to Morningstar.
One of the most-widely held funds in 401(k) accounts, it has underperformed the broad market since the beginning of the year, gaining 4.2 percent while the S&P saw a 5.8 percent return. That was lackluster enough to put it in the 85th percentile in its category, according to Morningstar data. The top funds in the category returned between 7 and 8 percent. T. Rowe declined comment.
The $10.8 billion JPMorgan Large Cap Growth Select fund, meanwhile, increased its stake in Apple to 8.7 percent of assets from 6.6 percent of assets between December 31, 2011 and the end of November, buying approximately 904,000 shares in the first 11 months of 2012. The fund has underperformed the S&P 500 by 1.1 percentage points since the start of the year, according to Morningstar.
Marsico, the Denver-based manager, began selling his position in the company when it traded at around $650 per share out of concern that its years of phenomenal growth were over.
"We didn't see another major category that would provide the opportunity that the iPhone has had for the company," he said.
The company's strong lineup of current products didn't entice him to stay invested. "They've talked about the fact that they have the best products they've ever had. But I remember you could say the same thing about Sony 20 years ago," he said.
Marsico has used the Apple proceeds to increase or initiate positions in pharmaceutical stocks. Among his new favorites are Bristol-Myers Squibb Co., whose blood-thinner Eliquis received U.S. Food and Drug Administration approval in late December, and BioGen Idec, which is expected to introduce a new treatment for multiple sclerosis in the second quarter. He is also adding to his position in Google, based on the theory that the company's development of YouTube will attract advertising dollars. Shares of Google are up 11.6 percent over the past 3 months.
Some managers trimmed their overweight positions, but were held back from selling more because of the company's massive pile of cash. Daniel Rosenblatt, a portfolio manager of the $639 million Neuberger Berman Large Cap Disciplined Growth fund, began trimming his position in Apple by approximately 10 percent, from 8.1 percent of assets to 7.2 percent of assets, as the company approached its high. The company, which had been among the fund's largest positions since 2004, was "clearly in a deceleration mode", Rosenblatt said.
He was most troubled by surveys that showed that even die-hard Apple fans were more open to using rivals' products. "When a product loses a certain amount of cool, its pricing power falls," he said. Yet he won't short the stock or sell more because the company's large cash position, which makes up about a third of its market value, "could change the dynamics of the stock price overnight" via a big buy-back or acquisition, he said.
He's buying companies like semiconductor manufacturer ASML Holding. Intel Corp invested $4 billion in the Dutch company in July and Samsung invested nearly $1 billion in August to help its research into ultra-violet technology that they believe could lead to much cheaper gadgets.
Artisan's George Sertl trimmed his Apple stake as the stock rose above the high $500s. He used part of the proceeds to increase his position in Apple rival Samsung. But recently, he's been buying Apple for less than he sold it. He believes Apple and Samsung, now among his five-largest holdings, are the best positioned to benefit from mobile and tablet growth and they spend enough on development and marketing to fend off rivals.
"Apple has one of the best brands and balance sheets in the world," he said. "The market is discounting a lot of problems."
(Reporting By David Randall; Editing by Martin Howell and Claudia Parsons)