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Thursday, April 26, 2007, 11:00 am PT (02:00 pm ET)

Citigroup downgrades Apple despite market-wide bullish outlook

Fighting the current, Citigroup on Thursday lowered its rating on shares of Apple to "Hold" from "Buy," citing the rapid increase in the company's share price.

"To be clear, we have no issue with medium to long-term fundamentals for Apple," analyst Richard Gardner explained in a research report to clients. "Our modeling simply suggests that forthcoming products like iPhone are fairly reflected in consensus earnings per share."

Gardner said he continues to favor Apple’s long-term growth opportunity, but sees little more than market returns in the shares from their current levels.

"We would be buyers on a pull back to around $90 and believe that summer seasonality, less favorable component pricing and lack of news during the next several months may provide such an opportunity," he said.

Gardner's analysis arrives in stark contrast to a chorus of reports from over a half-dozen other Wall Street firms, each of which maintained a higher level of confidence in Apple's ability to drive it shares significantly higher.

Bear Stearns' Andrew Neff raised his price target to $143 per share from $130, citing Apple's shift "to a broader array of products with multiple drivers and a sense of what is down the road."

"We believe shares can continue to surge into calendar year end on the back of new products," commented UBS's Ben Reitzes, as he bumped his Apple price target by $9 to $133. "The thesis that Mac sales can surge is alive and well."

At ThinkEquity Partners, analyst Jonathan Hoopes reiterated his Buy rating on shares of the Cupertino-based iPod maker while increasing his target share price to $130 from $120. "The [company's] earnings upside clearly supports our 'Look at the Core' thesis," he said. "That is, Apple is a software company that manifests itself through hardware."

Things were little different over at Morgan Stanley — if not more bullish — where analyst Kathryn Huberty kept an 'Overweight' rating and $110 price target on Apple shares, but said she is growing more confident that the stock will reach $160 per share in the next year.

Other notable price target hikes came from Deutsche Bank, where analysts upped their mark to $140 from $130, and PiperJaffray, which similarly boosted its share outlook to $140 from $123.

Siding on the conservative side with Citigroup's Gardner was J.P. Morgan analyst Bill Shope, who kept his "neutral" rating on Apple shares, saying that at their current price, risk versus reward remains unfavorable.

Despite the "Hold," Gardner did round up his Apple price target by $5 to $110. But he wasn't compelled to push it further.

"We see few other positive catalysts near-term that are not already known and incorporated into consensus estimates," he explained. "While Apple will discuss Mac OS X Leopard in detail on June 11 at the Worldwide Software Developers Conference, this product will not be available until October and we do not believe that 'secret' features will be a significant catalyst for the shares from current levels."

Shares of Apple have risen 12 percent since February 12, and were up an additional 7 percent in pre-market trading Thursday morning. They're currently trading up $5.48 (or 5.57 percent) for the day at $100.83.