Apple Earnings May Disappoint Everybody Today

Apple's growth rate has been slowing lately...

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Stephen Lam / Reuters

Update Oct. 28 6:30 p.m. EDT. Apple’s earnings results — Apple: The Juggernaut Isn’t What It Used to Be

The numbers associated with Apple, the world’s largest and most famous technology company, are staggering. From April to June of this year, Apple sold a whopping 31 million iPhones and 14.6 million iPads, helping to generate profits well in excess of $500 million per week. On Monday, the company delivers its most recent quarterly earnings report, and Wall Street analysts and investors will be watching closely to see what kind of sales and profit growth the company can deliver.

They may be disappointed. That’s because analysts are predicting that overall Apple revenue will only increase by a few percentage points compared with the same period last year. (Apple analysts have traditionally lowballed their estimates.) And profit, as represented by earnings per share (EPS), may actually decline from the previous year. In short, Apple’s growth rate is slowing down, and there may not be much of a short-term upside for Apple shares, at least based on last quarter’s results, until the company reveals sales for the holiday quarter — typically Apple’s most lucrative period — early next year.

What’s driving the slowdown in Apple’s growth? For one thing, after several years during which the company unveiled entirely new devices or radically improved existing models, Apple is increasingly making incremental, albeit impressive, advances to its products. When Apple launches an entirely new product, sales go from zero units one quarter to millions of units the next quarter, and that has as an explosive impact on the company’s financial results.

(MORE: Two Years After Steve Jobs’ Death, Is Apple a Different Company?)

Likewise, radically improved products like the iPhone 3G (2008), the iPhone 4S (2011) and the iPhone 5 (2012) supercharged company sales. To put this in perspective, Apple went from selling 11.6 million iPhones in 2008 to selling 72.3 million iPhones in 2011. In 2012, Apple sold a mind-boggling 125 million iPhones. So far this year, Apple has sold approximately 116 million iPhones. (Apple’s fiscal year concludes at the end of September.) Wall Street analysts expect the company to say it sold about 31 million iPhones last quarter, which would bring the full 2013 total to about 147 million units. Looking at the yearly trajectory, one can see how the rate of iPhone sales growth is slowing down.

In his quarterly-Apple-earnings-preview haiku, Colin W. Gillis, a technology analyst at BGC Financial, wrote:

Apple catalysts,
start to dwindle down as the,
new products get launched.

What Gillis means is that several potential drivers that could push Apple shares higher have already occurred, including: an increased dividend and share-buyback program, the recent launch of iOS 7, new product refreshes (iPhones, iPads, and Macintosh) announced in September and October, and Apple’s September disclosure that it sold a record 9 million units of the new iPhones during the first weekend they were on sale. All those developments are already factored into Apple’s stock price, which has jumped 19% in the past three months, and 26% in the past six months.

That said, Gillis has raised his price target for Apple shares from $500 to $550. “While we nudge our estimates and price target slightly higher, we do see fewer positive catalysts for the stock as the company finishes its annual product line refresh,” Gillis wrote in a note to clients. One bright spot for the company? The blockbuster first-weekend sales of the new iPhones will be included in Monday’s earnings report.

(MORE: Apple Juggernaut Powers On, Despite Doubters)

On Monday’s postearnings-report conference call, Wall Street analysts will be keen for an update on the latest sales numbers for Apple’s signature products, including the iPhone, the iPad and the Mac, as well as the iTunes media store. Analysts will also no doubt press company executives for any details about possible new products. The tech world has been rife with speculation that Apple could release a breakthrough new TV device, or possibly a wearable computing gadget like a “smartwatch” to compete with Google Glass, the tech giant’s computerized eyewear.

Looking at the numbers, Gillis has bumped his full year 2013 estimates for Apple to $39.29 EPS from $38.98 — which would be a decline of 11% from the previous year — and $170 billion in net revenue from $169 billion. For 2014, Gillis has raised his estimates to $43.64 EPS from $43.35 and $181 billion in net revenue from $180 billion. For the most recent quarter, which concluded at the end of September, Gillis expects Apple to report revenue of $36.9 billion, a mere 2.7% increase compared with last year and a 4.6% increase compared with last quarter. (Wall Street’s revenue consensus is $36.7 billion.) Gillis expects Apple’s EPS to come in at $7.92 per share compared with $8.67 last year and $7.47 in the prior quarter. (That’s above the Street’s consensus earnings estimate of $7.90.)

Although the short-term expectations for Apple stock may be muted, Apple is poised to have a monster holiday quarter (the first fiscal quarter of 2014), as usual. Like most top consumer-electronics companies, Apple enjoys robust holiday sales, as people snap up the latest gadgets to give as gifts to family members and friends. The recently announced iPad Air and the latest iPad Mini with the Retina display are sure to be blockbuster sellers over the holiday season, and sales may only be constrained by Apple’s ability to manufacture enough of the devices to meet consumer demand, a familiar problem for the company. If Apple can meet that demand, it could approach, or even exceed, $60 billion in quarterly revenue for the first time in its history. And that could send the company’s stock soaring once again.