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Apple Inc. (AAPL): The Smartphone Market Is Saturated

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I warned investors to avoid smartphone stocks back in early May. Growth appeared to be slowing, and while the stocks might not have been the worst investments to make, the smartphone market was showing signs of saturation.

The events of the last two months have validated that thesis. Smartphone demand has stalled, and smartphone stocks have performed poorly. Going forward, investors in these companies will have to brace themselves for limited growth.

Apple’s iPhone 5 struggles

Apple Inc. (NASDAQ:AAPL)’s struggles with the iPhone 5 appeared just shortly after the phone’s launch. That event coincided almost perfectly with Apple Inc. (NASDAQ:AAPL)’s all-time high. Although the iPhone 5 has sold well (it’s the world’s single best selling phone), it failed to live up to the expectations of optimistic Wall Street analysts.

Apple Inc. (NASDAQ:AAPL)’s stock steadily dropped last fall and early winter, as supply chain checks indicated that the demand just wasn’t as fantastic as what had been expected. The stock has largely traded range bound between $400 and $450 since.

Samsung’s Galaxy S4 disappoints

Some investors, seeing Apple Inc. (NASDAQ:AAPL)’s falling momentum, may have shifted into Samsung, whose Galaxy S3, S4, and Note 2 appeared to be the “next big thing.”

But to do so would’ve been a mistake. Although Samsung’s latest flagship, the Galaxy S4, had a robust launch, demand for the phone quickly cooled. Shares of Samsung fell Friday after the company reported disappointing earnings.

Like Apple Inc. (NASDAQ:AAPL), Samsung appears to have hit a similar wall in terms of smartphone demand.

HTC’s One can’t save the company’s sales

HTC’s latest Android handset, the HTC One, has been praised by tech reviewers. Many, citing the phone’s aluminum body, have said the phone is the best Android handset on the market.

Nevertheless, that wasn’t enough to save HTC’s bottom line. The company reported a bad quarter last week, with profits falling over 80%. While revenue was up big in May (right after the launch of the One), it plummeted in June (likely because everyone who wanted the phone bought it in May).

Where’s the growth?

With smartphone penetration already above 50% in the U.S., and major smartphone companies disappointing investors, I don’t think it’s unreasonable to declare the great smartphone growth era over.

It seems that everyone who can afford a smartphone already has one. And though they’ll likely be in the market for a new phone every two years or so, the tremendous growth that investors in these companies have enjoyed is over.

If there’s any growth to be found, it’s in the low-end of the market. Either in developing markets, or among those consumers in the developed world that can’t afford an $800 phone.

There are literally billions of consumers in developing economies that still need a smartphone; unfortunately, their budgets aren’t much more than $100. Samsung supplies phones to this demographic, but makes basically nothing doing it.

Berenberg analyst Adnaan Ahmad estimates that Samsung sells its cheap phones at a margin of roughly 1% — almost all of the company’s profits come from its high-end, high-margin Galaxy handsets.

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