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Apple Tosses Shareholders a $55 Billion Bone

By Tim Brugger - Apr 24, 2013 at 6:23PM

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After announcing tepid earnings, the iEverything maker offers shareholders a Band-Aid.

OK, Apple (AAPL -1.92%) fans, you can exhale now. Apple's much-anticipated fiscal Q2 report was announced April 23. Along with a few bright spots, the same concerns face the iPhone maker. Squeezed margins and uncertainty regarding the timing of its "next great thing" initially sent the company's shares reeling. Then CEO Tim Cook uttered these magic words: "share repurchases" and "dividend increase," reversing the run on Apple's stock. But for how long?

A few specs
Whether you're an Apple bull or bear, there's no denying it's burdened with higher expectations than most companies: Making money hand over fist for years tends to do that. Reporting an 11% jump in quarterly revenues compared to fiscal Q2 2012, along with net income of $9.5 billion, should be enough to appease even the grumpiest of shareholders.

Unfortunately for Apple, the increase in revenues for the quarter couldn't offset the significant drop in gross margin -- from 47.4% a year ago to the most recent quarter's 37.5%. The margin decline is especially painful because it, along with a lack of new, cutting-edge devices, has driven much of the stock's decline the past several months.

Device sales numbers in Q2 were marginal compared to the year-ago period. The 37.4 million iPhones sold in Q2 2013 was an improvement over 2012, but Apple investors didn't seem overly excited about the 6.5% increase. iPad sales jumped to 19.5 million vs. last year and Mac sales were flat, at just under 4 million units.

Expectations for the current quarter did not impress. Cook's guidance for fiscal Q3 is between $33.5 billion to $35.5 billion in revenues, not great considering Apple generated $35 billion last year. And those all-important operating margins? Gross margins are expected to be in the 35% to 37% range, below even the recent quarter's disappointing 37.5%.

Capital return program
Cook's answer to the blah quarter was boosting Apple's "capital return program" to a whopping $100 billion (from $45 billion) by 2015, along with a 15% dividend yield hike. Returning capital to shareholders -- particularly with Apple's $145 billion in cash on the books -- needed to happen, and makes even more sense via a stock repurchase plan given Apple's depressed share price.

So what's the problem with Apple's capital return program? Though $100 billion is certainly not too little, it is too late. The timing of Cook's announcement appears more like an act of desperation to appease disgruntled investors and analysts than a genuine desire to return value to shareholders. Of course, if you hold Apple shares, the money's coming, so what's the difference? The distinction is this: Perception too often becomes reality where the market's concerned, and Apple already appears more vulnerable than it has in years. Just ask Samsung. Now throw a little Apple desperation into the mix, and device manufacturers including Nokia (NOK -0.61%) and BlackBerry (BB -3.53%) must feel like they can at least see the light at the end of the smartphone tunnel now.

Where does Apple go from here?
This past quarter was a big one for Apple, and fiscal Q3 will be just as crucial, if not more so. When asked what Apple has in the pipeline, Cook said, "Our teams are hard at work on some amazing new hardware, software, and services and we are very excited about the products in our pipeline." In other words, Cook couldn't, or wouldn't, offer investors anything tangible to hold on to.

A lack of recent, innovative solutions has already hurt Apple's share price, and this quarter could be even worse. Nokia recently announced yet another new phone, the Asha 210 for the social media fanatics out there, targeting emerging markets. Nokia's partnership with Microsoft and its Windows 8 OS isn't an Apple killer yet, but continually introducing new products in the always-changing mobile phone market is a must, and Nokia is all over it.

BlackBerry is introducing its next great thing: The Q10 smartphone is expected to hit the streets in Canada on May 1. The Q10 -- unlike the Z10 device running the new BB10 OS -- comes with a keyboard, something BlackBerry die-hards love and gives the Q10 a real differentiator vs. Apple's iPhone. Samsung introducing its new Galaxy S4 on the same day Apple announced an underwhelming quarter may have been a coincidence. Or the mobile industry recognizes that Apple is more vulnerable than it's been in years, even to "little guys" like Nokia and BlackBerry, let alone global sales leader Samsung.

The dividend bump and repurchase program is nice, albeit late. Had Cook announced the new capital return program months ago, Apple shareholders likely would have seen a nice spike in stock price. But Apple's new program seems more like an act of desperation than a genuine desire to return shareholder value -- and that has the sharks circling.

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