Tim Cook uses Mad Money like parents use Santa Claus
-JIM: I will need something else?
-TIM: You will need something else.
-JIM: I can’t think of something else that I need.
-TIM: But we are going to give you things that you can’t live without that you just don’t know you need today.
-JIM: Okay, that’s what I want.
This exchange happened on TV Monday. It was not from a forgotten Samuel Beckett play, although it does have the unparsable, circular logic of Beckett's dialog, only with much more despairingly hollow ring to it.
The dialog came from an appearance that Apple CEO Tim Cook made on Jim Cramer's Mad Money. Mad Money, of course, is the CNBC where Cramer sprays out stock insights like a fidgety baseball player ejects sunflower-seed shells in a dugout. The show is beloved by a certain breed of retail investor as well as certain four-year-old boys for whom his shouty animation is something of a dog whistle.
Cramer seems to have become the go-to-guy for Cook when he feels a need to communicate with the everyday investor. Last August, Cook sent Cramer an email updating him on Apple's performance in China, a possible violation of an SEC rule prohibiting selective disclosure of material information. This was after Apple's stock had lost a fifth of its value in a few months.
Now, Apple's stock has fallen 17 percent in a little more than two weeks. Worse, the stock has fallen for eight straight days -- its longest losing streak since 1998, according to Bespoke Investment Group – driven largely by news that the company's posted its first quarterly revenue decline in 13 years. Actually, that revenue decline had long been expected. What bothered investors was that Apple, which has a good track record of beating expectations, missed on both revenue and profit.
But most headlines seized on the fact that sales were falling for the first time since the year Apple rolled out its iTunes store. That's a factoid that sticks. Apple is often reckoned, along with Google, to be the first or second most widely held stock in the world, particularly among 401k plans.
So Cook appeared on Mad Money to plead the company's case this week. Unsurprisingly, the stock barely budged on the news because, first, he didn't say anything he hasn't been saying for a while and because his objective was less likely to be to get investors buying than to keep them from selling. Apple, the message was, is far from over.
The best case Cook could have made would have been to hint at any new products that are coming to market in the next year or so. Not a new iPhone, which everyone expects with such certainty many iPhone owners have put off upgrades until this fall. Not a longer-term project like an Apple Car. Not something light like the Watch, which felt more like the email from a busy friend that reads: “This is a placeholder until I can send something more substantial.” The world demand something meaty from Apple, and it demands it soon.
Instead of assurance of bold new products, Cook made a sales pitch for the new iPhone: “We've got great innovation in the pipeline, new iPhones that will incent you and other people that have iPhones today to upgrade to new iPhones.” This led to the surreal exchange above, which in turn prompted Cook to invoke Steve Jobs' core vision: “That has always been the objective of Apple: To do things that really enrich people’s lives – that you look back on and you wonder, how did I live without this?”
Which brings up a good point. Apple can't tip its hand because it will speed up the inevitable copycatting of its best ideas. So, it has to ask everyone to just trust something great is coming, much like a parent must reassure kids they won't be disappointed come Christmas. This is why the invention of Santa Claus was such a wonderful idea: It passed the buck to some mythical persona. But Cook doesn't have a Santa Claus. He doesn't even have a Steve Jobs.
What he has is Mad Money. And despite his sensible arguments to Cramer's probing concerns, Cook ended up making what looked at best like a bit of damage control and at worst a desperate attempt to keep from looking desperate. Cramer asked about a feeling on Wall Street that Apple is “dead” or that “its best days are behind it,” and Cook replied “that is a huge over-reaction.”
Here too, Cook has a point. The year-ago quarter was so strong that comparisons were bound to be unkind, thanks to the release of the iPhone 6. Many Apple doubters today may have forgotten the pessimism that surrounded the company two years ago. Then Apple released the 6 Plus and made a shrewd push into China. Thanks to those two moves, phone sales surpassed expectations in both the number and durability of sales.
Even if Apple adds more how-did-I-live-without-this features to the iPhone 7 (and rumors suggest the appearance won't change much until the iPhone 8), the company faces a problem outside its ability to innovate. Global smartphone shipments for all companies declined 3 percent in the first quarter as markets like China reached saturation. Yes, the high end where Apple dominates will have growth for some time, but Apple is facing tough competition in China from other aspirational, loyalty-building brands like Xiaomi, which is rolling out new product categories at a much faster rate than Apple.
All of this may be setting the stage for something to emerge from Apple's pipeline that could kick the stock up to new highs in time. Ask Cook all you want and what you get is, Who knows? Trust us. “We don’t talk about products that are in the roadmap,” he said. “But I would tell you that we’re incredibly excited about things we’re working on. Incredibly excited.”
Cook is excited. Investors are not. And if something doesn't change they may become incredibly unexcited.