Shares of Apple (NASDAQ:AAPL) are down big as I write today. The reasoning, as I understand it, has little to do with Mr. Mac's impressive third-quarter results. Revenue improved 37.9%. Per-share net income rose 29.3%. Free cash flow jumped 42.2% through the first nine months of the fiscal year. But the headlines seem more focused on Apple's soon-to-be-thinning gross margin.
I can understand that, sort of. Apple finance chief Peter Oppenheimer told investors yesterday that gross margin -- otherwise known as what's left after subtracting manufacturing and other direct costs -- would fall from 34.8% in Q3 to 32% in Q4 and 30% during fiscal 2009. The implication? Apple has lost its pricing power.
"Apple rarely cuts prices," Needham & Co. analyst Charles Wolf told BusinessWeek. "What it usually does is enhance products within a price band. This suggests to me that they're going to drop prices on the MacBook or the iMac, and that it will carry a lower gross margin."
Translation: Apple is becoming like eBay (NASDAQ:EBAY), cutting prices to stay competitive. I, too, would be concerned -- if that were the truth.
But it isn't. The iEmpire has a long history of cutting prices. Here, it's employing a deliberate strategy to sustain momentum. Apple trails just Dell (NASDAQ:DELL) and Hewlett-Packard (NYSE:HPQ) in PC market share in the U.S. Nokia (NYSE:NOK), Research In Motion (NASDAQ:RIMM), and (especially) Palm (NASDAQ:PALM) are vulnerable in the North American smartphone market.
Plus, the timing is right: Consumers are more-price sensitive today than they've been in a while, and Apple, with $20.7 billion in cash and investments, can afford to make it easier to buy iGadgets.
Only those who (a) aren't paying attention or (b) are ignorant of history are surprised to see Apple lower prices. They're selling for the wrong reasons.
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