Here's a question for Siri, the digital librarian who provides answers to iPhone users: As goes Apple, so goes America?
That was the belief earlier this year, when a variety of commentators pointed out that Apple had become so massive and dominant that it seemed to single-handedly drive financial markets at times.
In April, Barron's noted that an astonishing surge in Apple's profits made the difference between a flat first-quarter performance for the overall earnings of the S&P 500 stock index, and a decent gain. In August, Apple's soaring market value made it the most valuable company ever, topping the previous record set by Microsoft in 1999. And in September, an analyst at J.P. Morgan Chase surmised that iPhone 5 sales could account for as much as half a point of the nation's entire GDP.
Such market heft recalls the days when the fortunes of General Motors reflected the fortunes of America, and vice versa. That's scary, of course, because GM went down the tubes, and some feel that the nation as a whole isn't far behind. So if Apple starts to tank, does that signal trouble for the whole U.S. economy?
Apparently not. Apple's stock has plunged by about 23 percent since it peaked in September at $702, as investors worry that new and forthcoming Apple products won't deliver the same transformative magic as the original iPod, iPhone and iPad. A minor selloff seems to have steamrolled into a bigger purge, with rumor and speculation regarding competitive pressure getting much more attention than usual, perhaps amplifying the selling.
But there's some good news in Apple's comedown: It hasn't brought the broader market with it, as some analysts once thought it could. Over the last three months, while Apple stock has fallen by 20 percent, the S&P 500 stock index has essentially stayed flat. That's even more surprising given that worries about the "fiscal cliff" in Washington have spooked business leaders, caused a slowdown in spending and hiring, and driven many investors to the sidelines.
Apple's slide may even benefit other U.S. companies, such as Google, Microsoft and Dell, Apple's top competitors in the market for smartphones, tablets and computers. Those stocks have all fared considerably better than Apple's over the last three months.
Apple employs about 43,000 workers in the United States, which is a lot, but it's a fraction of the workforce that industrial giants like GM, Ford, General Electric or Exxon had back when they were the mightiest American companies. So a dip at Apple wouldn't affect national employment very much, if at all, whereas a downturn at GM would have meant thousands of layoffs, probably throughout the entire industry. Besides, Apple is still highly profitable and stoked with cash, and there's no talk of layoffs, just a dispiriting drift in the stock price.
With the stock price down, Apple is now worth about $120 billion less than the record-setting valuation achieved in August. That prompts another question for Siri: Is Apple stock an irresistible buy? Traders don't seem to think so, not yet anyway. But Siri may know better.
Rick Newman is the author of Rebounders: How Winners Pivot From Setback To Success. Follow him on Twitter: @rickjnewman.
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