Apple earnings preview: iPhone 6 sales expected to lead strong quarter

Apple to report quarterly results Monday afternoon. Company will be following up on biggest quarter on record

Apple’s latest quarterly results on Monday are unlikely to top those from its blowout holiday quarter, but sales of the iPhone 6 should drive strong earnings gains compared with a year ago.

Analysts polled by Bloomberg expect Apple to report a profit of more than $12 billion, or $2.16 per share, during the first three months of 2015. That’s down from $18 billion for the quarter ending last December, a haul that topped that of every public company ever, according to S&P Dow Jones Indices.

The latest quarter likely saw 50 million to 60 million iPhones sold, compared with about 74.5 million during the holidays, but the numbers stayed strong in part because of purchases tied to the Chinese New Year in February, according to analysts.

Apple ended last year with $178 billion in cash -- enough to hand out $556 to each of the 320 million people in the U.S. On Monday, the company could unveil its latest plan to distribute some of that cash to shareholders through stock buybacks and/or dividends.

Apple's market cap has grown about 13% over the last three months to about $773 billion, making it the world’s most valuable company. Shares on Wall Street were trading at $132.75 midmorning, up 1.9% on the day.

Perhaps the only sour note for Apple could be another year-over-year drop-off in iPad sales.

Apple shareholders will have to wait a bit for the company’s newest product to start filling in holes. The Apple Watch went on sale after the close of the March quarter, and details about how well it’s selling aren’t expected on Monday -- and Apple has said it doesn’t plan to break out Watch sales in future reports anyway.

Slice Intelligence, which culls data from receipts emailed to an online survey panel, has estimated that 1.7 million Apple Watches were pre-ordered in the U.S. On Sunday, the firm said only about 376,000 of those have been delivered. Several Apple followers have predicted Watch sales to reach the 20-million range by the end of the year.

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