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Edmund Shing: It's Apple v Microsoft in the technology boxing match of the century

Cover of  by Edmund Shing

We have just witnessed the so-called boxing match of the century: Floyd Mayweather versus Manny Pacquiao in Las Vegas. Reputedly grossing over half a billion US dollars, this is a financial windfall of the likes never seen before in professional sport.

But the Mayweather v Pacquiao bout has its long-running mirror in the technology arena, with American technology giants Apple and Microsoft slugging it out for the crown of the most valuable company in the world since the dawn of the new millennium.
Apple slugs it out with Microsoft

Back in 2000, Microsoft held sway with its dominance over the PC software market thanks to the prevalence of the Windows operating system and its Office software suite, wearing the "Technology Most Valuable" belt with pride.
Apple 1
Figure 1. Global iPhone Volume Sales Remain Very Strong (Source: Apple)

But in 2015, it is Cupertino-based Apple that is the Floyd Mayweather of the tech world ?wearing the crown for being the most valuable company in the world as it is worth over $750bn (£495.7bn, ?674.2bn) and nearly twice the market size of Microsoft.

Recent Apple results have underlined the pre-dominance of the iPhone 6 and 6+ models, even taking reportedly a 25% market share of the Chinese smartphone market in the face of incredibly fierce domestic competition from handset makers Huawei, HTC and Xiaomi.

In fact, Apple sold more iPhone 6 handsets in China than in the US over the past three months. The 61.2 million iPhones sold globally over the second quarter (Figure 1) served to dish up outstanding financial results at Apple, beating the expectations of financial analysts by a wide margin.

Unlike during the technology bubble in 2000, "old" technology names such as Apple (US code: AAPL) and Microsoft (US code: MSFT) are today substantially cheaper than the overall US stock market. Adjusted for the cash on the balance sheets of tech titans Apple, Microsoft and Google, you pay an average of under 12 times earnings for these globally dominant tech names; in contrast, you pay a much more expensive 18 times earnings for the overall US stock market (Figure 2).
Apple 2
Figure 2. Apple, Microsoft & Google: Much Cheaper than the US Stock Market (Source: Yahoo Finance). Note: Lower P/E ratio is cheaper

While Apple and Microsoft are cheap, they still offer solid prospective growth in both profits and dividends. The combination of cheap valuation and solid growth prospects in the technology sector could be a good reason to buy exposure. However, unless you have a stock market account that allows you to buy and sell US stocks, you may find it difficult to buy Apple or Microsoft shares directly.
Buying US tech stocks via a fund

In this case, buying a sterling-denominated exchange traded fund (ETF) or investment trust focused on US technology stocks may well be an easier option. These typically have substantial weightings in both Apple and Microsoft, given they are two of the largest stocks in the entire US stock market.

Five technology fund options are below (Figure 3), all with varying weightings in these two tech giants as well as the global internet and social media behemoths Google and Facebook.
Focus instead on UK technology stocks

Instead of buying tech giants from the other side of the Atlantic, you may instead want to focus on technology closer to home. In that case, there are a number of UK technology stocks listed on the London Stock Exchange.

Narrowing down our focus to the technology hardware space, there are few large-cap stocks left for us to buy, following the recent takeovers of UK technology stocks CSR (being acquired by US semiconductor maker Qualcomm) and Pace (being acquired by US set-top box maker Arris).

ARM Holdings (semiconductor design, code: ARM), Imagination Technologies (semiconductor chip maker eg for Apple, code: IMG) and IQE (semiconductors, code: IQE) are three that remain listed in the hardware space.
Apple 3
Figure 3. UK-Listed Technology-Focused Exchange-Traded Funds, Investment Trusts (Source: Company Factsheets)

In the UK software space, there are the likes of Sage (small company software, code SGE), Micro Focus (business software, code MCRO) and Playtech (gaming software, code PTEC).

But, overall, the listed UK technology sector is getting smaller and smaller, with companies being swallowed up by larger US competitors. This trend may be a good additional reason to buy into medium-sized and smaller UK technology businesses, aside from the growth attractions in technology.

So there you have it, two ways to play the technology growth theme. You can go the US route, either buying the likes of Apple or Microsoft directly or by buying a US technology fund.

Or there is the UK route, selecting from an ever shorter list of listed UK technology stocks, but perhaps benefiting from their status as potential takeover targets in a global sector.

Edmund Shing is the author of The Idle Investor (Harriman House), an expert columnist and a global equity fund manager at BCS AM. He holds a PhD in Artificial Intelligence.

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