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Why Apple's Warning of a Major Revenue Miss Stung So Hard

By Motley Fool Staff - Updated Apr 14, 2019 at 4:49PM

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Plenty of companies revise their guidance lower occasionally, but the tech giant usually takes a different slant on forecasting.

Check out the latest Apple earnings call transcript.

This week, Apple (AAPL -1.51%) CEO Tim Cook delivered the sort of message that iBears have been expecting, and that shareholders have been dreading. The previously forecast revenue range for the fiscal first quarter of $89 billion to $93 billion was too optimistic by a touch. Trade-war troubles and slowing Chinese iPhone sales have made $84 billion look more realistic.

In this MarketFoolery podcast, host Chris Hill and MFAM Funds' Bill Barker talk about why Cook's pessimistic letter to shareholders was particularly worrisome to investors and analysts, the troubles inherent in selling a smartphone that retails above $1,000, the way the company's efforts to remedy the biggest pain point of older-model iPhone users could be backfiring, and their views on the outlook for the company and its stock price.

A full transcript follows the video.

This video was recorded on Jan. 3, 2019.

Chris Hill: Tim Cook, CEO of Apple, sent a letter to shareholders. It went something like this. "Dear Apple shareholders, remember back in November when we forecast that our first quarter revenue was going to be somewhere in the neighborhood of $89 [billion to] $93 billion? How would you feel about $84 billion instead?" Shares of Apple are down 9% today.

Bill Barker: Yeah. The attempt to spice that bad news up with, "By the way, we're going to have an all-time record for earnings per share," didn't seem to work. I don't think there's any surprise here, when you lower the revenue guidance as much as they did, especially for Apple, which is well known for providing very cautious guidance. Largely accused of sandbagging on guidance for the last decade, at least. So, when they say $89 [billion to] $93 billion, the usual response is, "Let's start with $93 billion and add a little more on." This is talking about the Wall Street analyst community. Normally, for many companies, you take the midpoint of the guidance as, "We've really evaluated this, and somehow we've come up with the exact midpoint of the guidance that has been handed to us." [laughs]

Hill: $91 billion.

Barker: Though, with Apple, you're going to be above that, because history has shown you that that's what's likely to come in closer to the reality. And this time, no such luck.

Hill: Apple is going to report their first quarter earnings somewhere in the neighborhood of Feb. 7. We've got a little over a month to go. Cook gave an interview with CNBC where he talked about traffic being down in their stores. He talked about China. A lot of it was about China. He said he hadn't seen the December numbers yet, but clearly, the indication was that they were bad enough that they're lowering guidance very early in January.

In that interview, he seemed to spell out two basic challenges that Apple is dealing with. One is of their own making, one is not of their own making. The not of their own making is the macroeconomic environment, the slowing of the economy in China, the trade war having an effect, that sort of thing. Of their own making is the fact that they're selling a $1,000 phone and trying to get a lot of people to buy it at the same point in time when -- and he made reference to this in the CNBC interview, he talked about the battery replacement program that they did last fall, how they dramatically lowered the price of the batteries, I think it was down to $29. You had a lot of people taking advantage of that. And because of that, they said, "I don't need to upgrade my phone. Why would I go out and upgrade from an iPhone 6 to a 7, or a 7 to an 8, when the battery was the problem and now it's fixed?"

Barker: I think that in a lazy world, you would refer to this as a perfect storm. I've always considered that to be among the laziest evaluations of what's going on, is to find three factors and combine them and pretend that somehow, that's a unique circumstance. But you've got China generally slowing down. You've got China-U.S. specifically being an issue. And Apple, in many ways, being a poster boy for the U.S. And then, you've got Apple's specific choices, as you mentioned, being largely around the pricing of their product. They make better and better products, but there appears to be a limit to which large numbers, or at least sufficiently large numbers, of people will go, in terms of buying a new phone when the one that they've already got is already awfully good. And Apple's history of being able to encourage people to upgrade their phones again and again and again has taken at the very least an interruption.

Tim Cook is talking about the various ways that they can mask the real cost of the phone by getting people to pay in installments. Of course, it was masked for a long time, in terms of what you would pay, because the service carrier was picking up part of the real cost. You were paying for that in your contract with AT&T or whoever. That's largely been interrupted. People are seeing the full cost of the phone and are hesitating.

Hill: This is a stock that, as I mentioned, down about 9% today. Down nearly 40% since last fall. They have all that cash on the balance sheet. When you look at Apple priced as it is today, do you look at it as a buying opportunity? Or do you think this thing has further to fall? Because the CEO himself said yesterday, "I haven't seen the December numbers." It's not out of the realm of possibility that the December numbers are actually worse than he and his executive team are imagining.

Barker: To be wishy-washy, I would say both. I think it's got further to fall in the short-term. That said, given the net cash, which I think the letter refers to as $130 million right now, that's about $30 a share --

Hill: $130 million? Or $130 billion?

Barker: $130 billion.

Hill: That's a big difference. Three more zeroes, anyway.

Barker: Well, some would say. On a day like today, who can tell? So, $130 billion. That's about $30 a share on the share price. They're about $4.7 billion, so I'm rounding up. It's not quite $30 per share. That out of, call it $144 right now that Apple's going for, something like that, you're spending about $114 net of the cash. It's got about $11 a share in earnings. So, about 10X the earnings power of the company. What are they going to do with all that cash? They're going to keep buying back their shares, which they've been doing pretty aggressively over the last six years. Over the last six years, earnings per share have grown 11% per year for Apple. That's off of a peak, six years ago was an interim peak. The actual net income has grown about 6%. They've not quite doubled their earnings-per-share growth by buying back what is closing in on two billion shares. They bought back about 25%-30% of the company over the last six years. They can continue to do that, buy back maybe 5% a year of the company, with just cash on hand and the cash flow that they're getting, and continue to pay the dividend, which is yielding about 2%.

You may see an interruption in their growth. Of course, the letter refers to all the other areas other than the iPhone as doing pretty well. They refer to, I want to say either 19% or 29% growth in the other areas of the company. That's not bad. The diversification outside of the phone is a net underneath things. But iPhone is still certainly the biggest part.

Hill: Absolutely. The Services business has been steadily growing. It's now, I would say, more than meaningful revenue. But, as you said, this is all about the iPhone. As long as the iPhone is not flying off the shelves, we're going to see days like this.

Barker: Let me get the number right, it is in the letter that "revenue outside of our iPhone business grew by almost 19% year over year," which is pretty good. It's a very large company. The non-iPhone part of Apple, which is the HomePods and the Macs and iPads --

Hill: The Watch.

Barker: -- the Watch, the Services. Services were $10.8 billion for the quarter. There's a lot of very large business going on outside the iPhone. But the iPhone is the biggest chunk, certainly.

Bill Barker is an employee of MFAM Funds, a separate, sister company of The Motley Fool, LLC. The views of Bill Barker and MFAM Funds are not the views of The Motley Fool, LLC, and should not be taken as such.

Bill Barker owns shares of Apple. Chris Hill has no position in any of the stocks mentioned. The Motley Fool owns shares of and recommends Apple. The Motley Fool has the following options: long January 2020 $150 calls on Apple and short January 2020 $155 calls on Apple. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.

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