The market doesn't know what to make of Apple's (NASDAQ:AAPL) fiscal fourth quarter. The stock moved sharply lower last night after initially digesting the report, but the company's earnings call and a good night's sleep delivered a change of heart. Apple eventually opened slightly higher this morning.
However, the stock was trading lower less than an hour into the new trading day. Who knows where the stock will be by the time you read this. The market can be fickle that way.
Let's go over a few observations that don't seem to be getting a lot of play about Apple's mixed showing.
1. Buybacks are corporate America's favorite Halloween disguise
Analysts were expected Apple's earnings per share to decline 8%. Apple's net income actually fell 9%, but it was still a beat. How can that be?
Well, it was a trick question. Apple's net income did clock in 9% lower during its fiscal fourth quarter than it did a year earlier, but aggressive share repurchases have eaten away at the shares outstanding, resulting in a kinder per-share figure. The tech giant's earnings per share slipped just 5%. Yes, this is a legitimate beat. Analysts factor share repurchases into their models, though it's naturally up to the company how many shares it buys back in any given quarter.
Apple has enough cash to keep the buybacks coming, making earnings appear more impressive on a per-share basis. However, fundamentally speaking, Apple's net income did slip 9% during the period.
2. Top-line growth has been stagnant lately
Apple's year-over-year growth in net sales improved from 0.9% in its fiscal third quarter to 4.2% this time around. Don't expect much in terms of accelerating growth.
Apple's outlook for the holiday quarter calls for $55 billion-$58 billion in revenue. Pitted against the prior holiday period's $54.5 billion showing, we're eyeing just 3.7% net sales growth at the midpoint of Apple's range. The company continues to grow, but 0.9%, 4.2%, and now possibly 3.7% isn't exactly scintillating stuff in this three-quarter stretch.
3. Apple's earnings per share could bounce back this quarter
Apple has now posted four consecutive quarters of year-over-year declines in earnings per share. That streak could end this period if Apple remains aggressive with the repurchases and lives up to its history of delivering conservative estimates.
Apple doesn't provide bottom-line guidance on a per-share basis, but it offers enough of an outlook down the income statement to fill in the blank.
Gross profit should be pretty even this quarter. Apple generated $21.06 billion in gross profit during last year's holiday quarter as a result of 38.6% gross margin on $54.5 billion in revenue. If we take the midpoints of its current outlook to arrive at 37% gross margin on $56.5 billion in revenue we get $20.91 billion in gross profit.
Apple sees $4.4 billion-$4.5 billion in operating expenses, $200 million in other income, and a 26.25% tax rate during this quarter. Apple had just $3.85 billion in operating expenses a year earlier; it also racked up $462 million in other income and had a slightly kinder 26% tax rate. Sticking to the middle of Apple's operating overhead projection, net income after taxes should be $12.29 billion. Yes, that's 6% lower than the $13.08 billion it served up in net income during last year's fiscal first quarter, but between Apple's tendency to provide conservative guidance and its aggressive buybacks, we may get Apple's first quarter of year-over-year growth in earnings per share in more than a year.
This isn't exactly the sign of an encouraging turnaround, but it will have to do until Apple raises the bar again with another new product category.
Longtime Fool contributor Rick Munarriz has no position in any stocks mentioned. The Motley Fool recommends Apple. The Motley Fool owns shares of Apple. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.