When Apple (AAPL 0.23%) reported its earnings last week, investors heard some expressions they hadn't heard in conference calls past. In CEO Tim Cook's opening statements, the word "currency" was mentioned six times -- versus zero times in the prior four quarters -- with the company presenting a constant-currency supplemental outlining the strengthening dollar's deleterious effects on revenue.
Also creeping into Cook's lexicon was the term "economic softness," as Cook used the word to describe Greater China. This was worrisome, considering Apple's growth during the last year has mostly been from the Middle Kingdom.
If Apple's description of the device market was the equivalent of an iOS notification, Samsung's (NASDAQOTH: SSNLF) warning was more akin to a fire alarm. After posting quarterly profit 40% below expectations, the company's executives said last week, as Bloomberg phrased it, "the deteriorating global economy was eroding demand for computers and smartphones and depressing component prices."
While both seem to agree on direction, it appears they disagree on the matter of degree. Should investors buy in to Apple's version of a softening economy with pockets of sluggishness, or Samsung's much-harsher version?
In smartphones, Apple seems correct at the moment
Giving credence to Apple's version of events was IDC's fourth-quarter smartphone-shipments figure. The analyst and marketing research firm reported smartphone shipments slowed to 5.7% year-on-year growth in the final quarter of 2015 versus full-year growth of 10.1%. While it's true that growth is slowing in smartphones, near-6% growth isn't bad, and is above the current GDP growth rates exhibited in most developed economies.
Interestingly enough, Samsung's gloomy forecast is rebutted by its relatively strong smartphone performance in the fourth quarter, according to IDC. While the South Korean conglomerate only grew shipments by 2.1% over last year's figure on a full-year basis, the fourth quarter was decidedly better, with Samsung increasing shipments 14% over 2014's corresponding period.
Apple's results were the exact opposite, with the company shipping 20.2% more iPhones in 2015, but slowing to anemic 0.4% in the fourth quarter. Apple's version of softness seems more accurate when applied to the overall market -- not its own results.
Samsung's data may be correct going forward
In addition to the finished products the company manufactures, Samsung has a considerable semi-finished operation with its device solutions division, which produces the chips, memory, and other various components vendors use. This is the business that would slow first as computer and smartphone makers will cut back orders in anticipation of slowing demand. In the company's semiconductor division outlook, it is expecting a potential IT market slowdown and uncertain mobile demand.
However, in the company's IT and mobile division, where its smartphone and tablet results are reported, the company mentions that it expects single-digit growth of smartphone and tablet demand. This appears to contradict Samsung's claims of a "deteriorating global economy," unless the company expects to steal back some of the market share it's lost in recent years.
It could be that Samsung's bearish forecast is based upon poor results for computers, which have been in a state of decline for years, where Apple's summation revolves around the path forward for its iPhone. Economic forecasts are biased by your operating environment, and executives have been known to blame macroeconomic forces for poor performance.
I think the answer lies in-between the two forecasts. The mobile-device markets are noticeably cooling, and vendors will have to grow market share therein to have strong revenue growth, but I don't expect these markets or the global economy to rapidly deteriorate.