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How's Apple, Inc. Really Doing in China?

By Jamal Carnette, CFA – Feb 2, 2016 at 11:30AM

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Is Apple growing at the rate of China's smartphone market, or is the company stealing market share?

Apple's store in Shanghai may suffer as a result of a slowing smartphone market. Image source: Flickr user Jon Skilling

If you've been following Apple (AAPL -1.51%) for the last fiscal year plus, you're probably well aware the company has been dependent upon China for top-line growth. For example, last fiscal year the Middle Kingdom was responsible for 53% of Apple's year-on-year revenue growth. As a result of a well-received iPhone 6 and iPhone 6 Plus, Apple outperformed versus its prior-year result as Cupertino reported 84% year-on-year growth in Greater China.

Last quarter, Apple's year-on-year growth rate in China fell precipitously as a combination of more-unfavorable comps made the near-triple digit gains Apple posted in prior quarters tough to attain. For reference, here's a graphical representation of Apple's past two years in the country versus all other geographies:

Source: Apple's 10Qs. Revenue figures in millions.

During the first-quarter conference call, Tim Cook hinted toward "signs of economic softness in Greater China." Apple doesn't report product-specific results on a geographical basis, but it's widely known the iPhone is Apple's growth driver in China much like it is for all geographies. In order to determine Apple's real performance in China, it is imperative to gauge how the company's doing in relation to the overall smartphone market in the country. And that's where market-research firm Strategy Analytics' report of China's smartphone shipments comes in handy.

Strategy Analytics shows Apple is going extremely well
On a full-year basis, Apple trounced the greater Chinese smartphone market on a units-shipped basis. Strategy Analytics reports Apple moved 49.5 million units in China last calendar year, up from 31.1 million in 2014. In doing so, Apple's 59% growth finished tops among the 5 largest vendors. By comparison, No. 1 Chinese vendor Xiaomi reported 17% year-on-year growth to ship 67.5 million units. Domestic competitor Huawei continues to report strong growth by posing 51% growth in China, growing units shipped from 41.3 million last year to 62.2 million in 2015.

China's starting to show common signs of a maturing smartphone market. Overall, Strategy Analytics points to a slowing market (more on this later) with the top five vendors rapidly consolidating market share. In 2014, the combined market share of the top five vendors was 42%; in 2015 that figure climbed to 57% as all major vendors grew above the industry's year-on-year growth rate. As a result of having the highest growth rate, Apple also increased its market share the most during this period, 4-percentage points, taking 7.3% of the market in 2014 to 11.3% last year.

Strategy Analytics points toward more than "softness"
For those looking for triple-digit growth rates from Apple in China, it's best to adjust your expectations to a figure more akin to the 13.8% Apple grew in the recently completed first fiscal quarter. And that's because the overall Chinese smartphone market is slowing at a faster rate than Cook hinted at with his "softness" comment. After year-on-year growth of 33.6% in 2014, last year's growth rate in China slowed to 3.4%. Even worse, in the fourth quarter China reported a year-on-year decrease in shipments of 4.1%, hinting toward the market is cooling faster than the full-year growth rate suggests.

A maturing market isn't always a bad thing, Apple and the other vendors can continue to grow in a maturing market by consolidating market share. And in many cases a slowing market dissuades new entrants or prompts others to exit the business, further increasing market share of the remaining firms. However, it will be hard for Apple to continue to grow near triple digits in a market that is actually slowing. Apple's going quite well in China all factors considered, but look for the slowing macroeconomic environment to hurt future growth.

Jamal Carnette owns shares of Apple. The Motley Fool owns shares of and recommends 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.

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