Apple Shares Plunge 10% on Slowing Growth, New Product Jitters

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Robert Galbraith / REUTERS

For years, Apple consistently beat Wall Street expectations, not only because the company habitually low-balled its financial projections, but also because it was growing at a rate and scale that was virtually unprecedented in the history of corporate America. It appears those days are over.

For the third consecutive quarter, Apple, the world’s largest technology company, fell short of analyst estimates, sending the company’s stock down a whopping 10% in after-hours trading, wiping out nearly $50 billion in shareholder value. Although it reported record financial results, Apple’s slowing growth has raised questions about the next phase in the company’s evolution.

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One thing is for sure: The numbers associated with Apple’s business are staggering. Apple sold 47.8 million iPhones and 22.9 million iPads during the holiday quarter, but both of those figures were about one million short of analyst expectations. The company generated profit of $13.1 billion, but that was flat compared to the year ago period — the company’s lowest rate of profit growth in a decade — in part because of higher production costs associated with new products. Revenue came in at $54.5 billion, an 18% increase over one year ago, but less than the $55 billion that analysts had been expecting.

For the current quarter, Apple projected sales of between $41 billion and $43 billion, but that number also fell below the $45.6 billion that analysts had been expecting. That translates to revenue growth of about 7%, which is lower than the double-digit sales growth that Apple had enjoyed in recent years.

The fundamental question facing Apple is whether its existing, wildly popular products like the iPhone and the iPad can continue to power revenue and profit growth, or whether it needs new, breakthrough products. After all, during his legendary career, Apple’s late co-founder Steve Jobs radically disrupted several industries with iconic products like the iPod, iPhone and iPad.

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“It has been an overriding concern with Apple that they would not be able to generate revenue growth just rolling out new versions of old products,” Jeff Sica, president and chief investment officer of SICA Wealth Management, told the Associated Press. “Now they’ve proven it in their numbers.”

What will be Apple’s next revolutionary product? On a conference call with analysts, Apple CEO Tim Cook didn’t say — he likes to keep people guessing — but he did insist that the company has some surprises up its sleeve.

“We’re working on some incredible stuff,” Cook said. “The pipeline is chock full.” There has been speculation that Apple could introduce a new television product, especially after Jobs told his biographer Walter Isaacson that he cracked the code on a revolutionary new TV. But so far, those rumors remain just that — rumors. “We’re very confident in our product pipeline as we continue to focus on innovation and making the best products in the world,” Cook added in a statement.

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Apple’s most recent quarter was just the latest period to fall short of Wall Street expectations. (Though to be fair, the most recent holiday quarter was one week shorter than the previous year. Also, new products — and there were several this holiday season — are more expensive to produce.) Last October, sales of the company’s iPad tablet device fell short of analyst forecasts, as many consumers held off buying in anticipation of the new iPad Mini. And in July, Apple’s iPhone sales disappointed analysts, again, as buyers waited for the new model. This suggests that consumers are becoming more savvy — and perhaps selective — about Apple’s product cycle.

Apple’s latest quarter raised questions for some Wall Street analysts. “It’s going to call into question Apple’s dominance in the space,” Sterne Agee analyst Shaw Wu told Reuters. “It’s still one of the strong players, the others being Samsung and Google. It’s still a two-horse race, but Android continues to grow rapidly.” Indeed, Google’s Android mobile operating system is the most ubiquitous platform in the world, although it’s vastly less profitable for Google than the iOS devices are for Apple.

Apple’s slowing growth rate has taken a major bite out of the company’s stock price, which has declined by nearly 30% since its peak in September — and that’s before Wednesday’s 10% after-hours free fall. Still, despite the pessimism, which is being driven by typically sky-high expectations, there’s is little doubt that Apple’s fundamental business remains very strong. “Sentiment has turned super-pessimistic on Apple, where they’ve gone from being able to do no wrong to suddenly being able to do no right,” Rob Cihra, an analyst at Evercore Partners, told the New York Times. “I tend to think the company’s momentum is a heck of a lot more solid than people are concerned about.”