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Thursday, February 22, 2007, 06:00 am PT (09:00 am ET)

Bear Stearns holds rating on Apple, weighing risk vs. reward

Financial research firm Bear Stearns in a note to investors this week spoke enthusiastically about the growth potential of Apple's new product portfolio — but warned that it could all come crashing down if the company is dealt the wrong hand.

In a research note issued to clients on Wednesday, analyst Andrew Neff expressed a cautious optimism, holding his ground on estimates for Apple's future despite jitters over stock options and other threats that could potentially dampen the electronics firm's spirits. Still, the analyst maintained his prediction that Apple's shares would top $130 by year's end.

Most of the newfound courage in the stock came from the quickly swelling Apple lineup spurred on by the Apple TV and iPhone, which Neff sees as ending a roller-coaster ride of company fortunes that depended almost exclusively on sales spikes triggered by new hardware and software.

"Before, Apple launched 'insanely great' products," he wrote. "But investors had no idea what, if anything, would come next and when it might happen."

Neff also contended that the Apple TV and iPhone were just tips of a much larger spear. Expansion will dominate 2007 for Apple in his view, with every line potentially growing larger. Apple TV in particular, he said, represents just a small hint of what was to come for the Cupertino-based company's increasing presence in the living room and could quickly spawn PVRs or even hybrid TV and media hub combinations. Video would be "next year's story," he added, comparing the Apple TV's current narrow focus to the iPod's early role as a niche-filler.

Even Mac share could break out of its deadlock, according to Neff. He told investors not to dwell too heavily on Apple's existing models, explaining that 2007 was the company's time to experiment with its computers, possibly creating ultra-portables, media hubs, and Macs priced below the $599 threshold of today's Mac mini.

Nevertheless, skepticism clouded at least some of the analyst's outlook. The presence of Apple chief executive Steve Jobs was identified as the single most polarizing factor. Jobs is "the heart and soul" of Apple, he said, and would bode well for the company as long as he stayed but would be "sorely missed" if federal investigations or other events forced his exit.

Neff also raised concerns over the possibility that Apple has hit its growth ceiling, especially in terms of breaking the historically unshakeable grip of Microsoft over the computer market. But at the same time, he noted that the iPod's "halo" effect appeared to be ongoing in spite of worries that the music player market could soon settle.

Overall, the negative factors of Jobs' potential departure and Apple's habitual difficulty with expanding its base weren't enough to dissuade Neff from holding to an Outperform rating on the stock and urging investors to buy on advice that the company had strengthened its line.

Apple now has "some sense of what is down the road," the analyst wrote.