Apple and the China Equation

October 28th, 2015

As concerns grow over China’s economic situation, and perceived slowdowns, Apple looms front and center. A hefty portion of the company’s growth in the past year has been pegged on sales of new iPhones — and Macs for that matter — in that country. Indeed Apple’s stock price nosedived even faster than the overall stock market recently over such concerns. It took a statement from Tim Cook, to a TV financial host no less, to set things right. Of course, it also brought about a few demands for investigation because Cook may have spoken out improperly, although he has done that before.

So you can imagine that there was a lot of anticipation ahead of the release of Apple’s fourth quarter financials. Fears of sales in China were clearly paramount when the stock dropped on Monday, but it mostly recovered Tuesday, ahead of the news. Whether things will grow better or worse may depend on one’s expectations.

On the surface, it would appear that Apple has weathered most concerns.

Indeed, profits rose 31% based, in part, on continued strong iPhone demand in China. According to Apple, 48.04 million iPhones were sold in the September quarter, which was a tad short of analyst estimates of 48.72 million units but still 22 percent over last year’s 39.27 million. Of course, analyst estimates are seldom based on reality. Regardless, it so happens that the iPhone 6s and iPhone 6s Plus were only available for two business days during that quarter, so sales of the new models could not have had a significant impact. Just as important, China sales are up 99% year-over-year. So much for Wall Street skepticism.

Typical of their usual disconnect, CNET described iPhone sales which, as you see above, were only slightly behind estimates, as “ho-hum.” If Samsung reported similar sales growth for Galaxy smartphones, I wouldn’t be surprised to see CNET call it stellar and the company unstoppable.

In addition, Apple reported that 30% of iPhone sales went to Android switchers. This figure was no doubt helped along somewhat by the recent release of an Android app, Move to iOS, which eases the process of transferring your stuff from Google’s platform to Apple’s, and locating apps to replace the ones you’ve been using. I wonder how many went the other way, but that doesn’t seem to have been a significant factor so far.

Overall revenue was $51.50 billion, an increase of 22% from last year’s $42.12 billion. Net income rose from $8.47 billion last year to $11.12 billion this year. Earnings per share rose to $1.96 from $1.42 last year, and this was partly attributed to the company’s aggressive program to repurchase shares. This is somewhat better than analyst estimates, which indicated that Apple would report earnings of $1.88 a share on revenue of $51.1 billion, In other words, it should be a good thing.

Despite claims from the usual offenders who deliver preliminary estimates, that Mac sales were down, they actually increased, slightly, to 5.7 million, an improvement of 3 percent over the previous year. The result bucks a trend towards falling PC sales. It also justifies Apple’s ongoing investments in the platform.

It came as no surprise that iPad sales didn’t impress. In keeping with the overall downward trend, some 9.8 million were sold, a drop of 20 percent over last year. Whether the arrival of the iPad Pro will change things is doubtful, since it may not be a mass market success. Besides, the iPad Pro won’t be on sale until November, which means it’ll probably have minimal impact for the current quarter.

Now I suppose it’s always possible that more people will consider upgrading their old iPads at long last. Apple, at least, continues to remain bullish on the product despite the sales setbacks. But it wo with tablet sales. Perhaps the deal with IBM to push the iPad to the enterprise will eventually bear fruit.

As to Apple Watch sales, the best they could offer was that “sales of Apple Watch were up sequentially and were ahead of expectations.” What expectations? This is the sort of question that wasn’t asked during the quarterly conference call with financial analysts, although it’s pretty clear from the statement that there would be no further illumination on the matter.

For now, it will only fuel speculation that the Apple Watch is not doing so well, which is why sales figures aren’t being disclosed. It’s also true that Apple continues to add dealers to carry the smartwatch. Still, even the most pessimistic estimates indicate that the Apple Watch is doing way better than competing products, but it may take a year or two to judge its potential. Remember the iPad did remarkably well out of the starting gate in 2010. By 2014, sales began to dip.

For the current quarter, Apple estimates revenue between $75.5 billion and $77.5 billion and gross margins between 39 and 40 percent. This is fairly close to analysis predictions, but those analysts were expecting worse, which may mean that Apple’s stock price will rise regardless.

Of course, in a world where a tiny profit from Amazon is enough to cause its stock to soar, we are beyond he point of expecting rational outcomes.

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2 Responses to “Apple and the China Equation”

  1. dfs says:

    I don’t think it’s a question about whether the Apple Watch is selling well or not. Rather, it’s a question of whether the smartwatch in general is a viable product. As it now stands, it look like little more than a supposedly handier extension of a smartphone which saves you the trouble of taking it out of your pocket on occasion combined with a FitBit-type wearable device. Not very compelling, especially for those of us who are not fitness devotees (the pedometer app I keep on my iPhone, downloaded for free, covers my needs just fine). Can it be made to do more than that? Currently, the answer to this seems to be in the hands of third-party developers. A few killer apps might reverse the situation around, but so far I haven’t heard of any such.

    • @dfs, If Apple can sell 15-20 million a year, though, it will probably keep on. Estimates for the September quarter range from 3.5 to 4 million. The holiday season may tell a lot more about its potential. But I agree killer apps won’t hurt.


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