Apple Inc. may still make products customers love, but its latest earnings report appears to have broken investors’ hearts.
For the third quarter in a row, Apple reported revenue and profit that were impressive by normal standards, but short of what analysts had expected. Investors reacted harshly, driving Apple’s stock price down more than 10% in after-hours trading Wednesday.
If that trend holds when trading opens Thursday, Apple will have lost almost $50 billion in market value in the blink of an eye, and its stock will have given up almost all the extraordinary gains it had made in the last year. Investors’ and fund managers’ belief in one of the world’s most widely held stocks will be severely tested in the coming days.
More fundamentally, despite upbeat talk by Apple Chief Executive Tim Cook, the performance is unlikely to quell growing worries that Apple’s remarkable run of dominance might be over.
“Overall, compared to other companies, it’s impressive. But for Apple’s standards, it’s not great,” said Patrick Moorhead of Moor Insights & Strategy. “I do think this somewhat fuels the perception that Apple is slowing down a bit.... And it’s driven by the fact that some of its competitors are catching up, and in some markets have already caught up.”
Apple executives did their best during an hourlong conference call with analysts to project optimism and excitement about both the last quarter and the months ahead. They noted that the company had trouble meeting demand for both iPads and Macs, and could have sold many more had they been able to build enough.
They also pointed to a growing business in China and the expansion of iTunes, which is now available in 119 countries.
“Apple is in one of the most prolific periods of innovation in its history,” Cook said. “We continue to believe our fundamentals, our remarkable people, our clear and focused strategy will serve us well in the coming months and years ahead.”
Cook praised the record numbers posted by Apple. For the three months that ended in December, Apple said revenue increased 18% to a record $54.5 billion. Profit also set an all-time high but was up only slightly from the year-earlier quarter, rising to $13.08 billion, or $13.81 a share, from $13.06 billion, or $13.87.
Apple said it sold a record 47.8 million iPhones last quarter, up from 37 million iPhones in the same quarter of 2011. Despite that massive figure, some analysts had hoped to see stronger demand with sales exceeding 50 million.
“Meeting expectations is not enough for Apple,” said Colin Gillis of BGC Financial. “So that’s a little bit of a disappointment…. International sales were a little weaker than people expected. So we’ll see how that shakes out.”
Last quarter saw the introduction of the iPad mini, a 7.9-inch version of Apple’s popular tablet computer. The Cupertino, Calif., company said it sold a total of 22.9 million iPads in the quarter, also a record, up from 15.4 million a year earlier. The company didn’t break out iPad mini numbers from its total tablet sales, but Chief Financial Officer Peter Oppenheimer told analysts that the smaller version has been a hit and that the company experienced significant backlog getting the product to store shelves. The 22% lower average selling price for Apple’s tablets suggests the mini has performed well but probably cannibalized some sales of its 9.7-inch version.
Historic comparisons were challenging this year because the most recent quarter had only 13 weeks, compared with 14 weeks for the same quarter of 2011.
Like many retailers and consumer electronics companies, the quarter from October to December is typically Apple’s largest because of the holiday shopping season. Last year, Apple managed to stun investors by beating its own revenue estimates by more than 25% and earnings forecast by nearly 50%. That sent the stock soaring.
But even as Apple extended its lead as the world’s most valuable company, and set a record in August for most valuable company ever when not adjusted for inflation, doubts began to creep into the minds of analysts and investors.
Shares have plummeted 27% in the last four months. On Wednesday, shares rose $9.24, or 1.8%, to $514.01 during regular trading.
Apple reported strong earnings in both the third and fourth quarters last year, but the numbers missed analysts’ consensus estimates. Gradually, analysts began lowering their forecasts for Apple’s earnings for the current fiscal year. At the same time,
Apple experienced some uncharacteristic gaffes. The new Apple Maps app that replaced Google Maps on iOS 6 devices had reliability problems, prompting a rare apology by Apple. And the iPhone 5 that went on sale in September faced long shipping delays as Apple suppliers struggled to adapt to the new, longer screen size.
The dismissal of iOS chief Scott Forstall, a favorite of the late Apple co-founder Steve Jobs, raised eyebrows. But so did a new strategy for launching products: Whereas Apple updates to products used to be few and far between, the company has lately begun increasing the number of products as well as the introduction of new versions.
The first quarter saw one of the busiest product launch cycles in the company’s history. The quarter was the first full quarter of sales for the iPhone 5, a new iPod Touch and nano, the fourth iPad, a new 13-inch Retina MacBook Pro, and, of course, the first iPad mini.
Observers have pointed to this accelerated pace as an indication that Apple is facing more competitive pressure from rivals such as Samsung Electronics Co., which is now the world’s biggest seller of smartphones, with its Galaxy series of phones. The concern is that the faster upgrade cycle plus the smaller iPad mini will cut into Apple’s historically high profit margins.
Such fears over lower profits have also been stoked by the debate over whether Apple plans to release a cheaper iPhone aimed at capturing market share in emerging economies and the concern that Apple has not been able to strike a deal with China’s largest carrier.
Now that the first-quarter numbers have been released, analysts will be busy recalibrating their projections over the next couple of days. But the focus is also likely to shift to renewed speculation about new products that investors are hoping will drive another big run for the stock.