Dow Stars Apple and Merck Up Over 25%

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The Dow Jones industrial average is up only 1.7% this year to 24,875, a contrast to several years of double-digit improvement. Of the Dow 30 stocks, 12 are down for the period. But two continue to soar. Shares in Apple Inc. (NASDAQ: AAPL) and Merck & Co. (NYSE: MRK) are up over 25%. Neither shows any signs of surrendering those gains.

Apple’s shares are higher by 26% to $213 year to date. Merck’s stock is up over 29% to $73, and it leads the Dow.

Apple’s stock price is no longer driven by just iPhone sales. The company recently released upgraded versions of its iPad Pro and MacBook Air. Each is lighter and smaller but has more processing power. Early reviews of the computers are positive. The Mac, once the core of the company’s sales, has faded recently. However, iPad revenue for Apple’s most recent quarter was $4.7 billion of Apple’s total $53.2 billion total. Mac sales were $5.5 billion.

The new engine of Apple’s growth is what it calls its “services” business, and it is by far the company’s fastest-growing segment. Last quarter, its revenue was up 37% to $9.5 billion, compared to Apple’s overall revenue growth of 17%. These services include Apple’s burgeoning movie production business, the iTunes store, its app business, and the music, cloud storage and Apple Pay businesses. Apple’s efforts in this area put it up against several other large tech giants, particularly Apple’s hardware customer base is in the hundreds of billions, which helps it market its line of services.

Merck is a much slower growing company. However, its advances with certain drugs and treatments mean that sales and its bottom line should improve in the future. In the past quarter, revenue was $10.8 billion, up from $10.3 billion in the same quarter a year ago. Net income was $2 billion, compared to a loss of $56 million.

While Merck is in the vaccine and hospital supply businesses, the company’s future lies with its oncology business. Its pipeline includes new treatments for certain kinds of breast and lung cancer, bladder cancer and melanoma. Sales of one of its current cancer treatments, immunotherapy drug Keytruda, nearly doubled in the third quarter.

Another reason Merck is popular with some investors is its growing dividend and share buybacks. Recently Merck announced it would raise its dividend to $0.55 per share from $0.48. Its current share buyback war chest is $10 billion.

Many market experts worry that poor earnings and a slowing economy could beat down the market between now and the end of the year. Certainly, the markets are unstable, with daily gyrations of the Dow no longer unusual. For mega-cap stocks to post returns about 25% for the year is highly unusual and has handsomely rewarded investors who bought early this year, or in many cases sometime earlier.

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