Delayed iPhone 12 sales could be a drag on Apple’s quarterly report

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The pandemic pushed the introduction of the iPhone 12 line up into October this year.

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Investors are expecting Apple to report a solid quarter this week despite the weak state of the global economy, but a few analysts warn that the iPhone maker’s numbers may fall short.

The COVID-19 pandemic shut down many factories earlier in the year, including some supplying parts for iPhones, forcing Apple to delay introducing its new models this year. The new $800 iPhone 12 and $1,000 iPhone 12 Pro didn’t go on sale until mid-October while the $700 iPhone Mini and $1,100 iPhone 12 Pro Max won’t reach customers for another few weeks.

And that means no sales of the new models will count in the quarter ending Sept. 30, Apple’s fiscal fourth quarter. Most years, new iPhones go on sale in mid-September.

According to the average analyst forecast, Apple will report total revenue of $64.2 billion and net earnings per share of 70 cents. That would represent a modest sales gain of less than 1% and a profit decline of 8% per share.

But the results may fall short. “We see the potential for an expectations miss,” Morgan Stanley analyst Katy Huberty noted. She called the average analyst forecast “aggressive,” given that new iPhones typically account for as much as 47% of iPhone sales.

Huberty expects iPhone sales will drop 13% from previous quarter to $22.9 billion, versus the average analyst estimate of $28.5 billion of phone sales. That’s based in part on what happened in 2011, the last time Apple delayed new models to October, when sales dropped 19% from the prior quarter. She’s also predicting Apple’s revenue will come in at only $60 billion, with profits of 62 cents per share.

How big an impact such a miss may have on Apple’s stock price is unknown, however, since Apple will likely make up any lost sales in the final quarter. “We would be buyers of any dip in share price post earnings in anticipation of upcoming iPhone 12 strength,” Huberty noted.

Apple’s stock closed at $111.20 on Wednesday, up 17% over the past three months and 51% so far in 2020. But it is still down from an all-time high of $137.98 reached in midday trading on Sept. 2.

Other analysts pointed to Apple’s strength during the pandemic so far as an indication that even with the later iPhone 12 sales, the company still should report solid results for the current quarter. In its last quarterly report on July 30, Apple showed surprising strength at the height of COVID-19 closures. Sales rose 11% to $59.7 billion while Wall Street had forecast a slight drop.

“Apple’s work from home and learn from home products (iPads and Macs) should continue to do well despite being in the third quarter of pandemic upgrades,” Piper Sandler analyst Harsh Kumar wrote.

Also bolstering investor sentiment in Apple are the seemingly big subsidies that U.S. wireless carriers are offering to buyers of the new iPhones. With a new line and a trade in, Verizon is offering buyers up to $550 off and AT&T is giving $800 in a similar circumstances.

“While we expected promotional activity to be an important mechanism to drive unit sales, given the incremental 5G feature set and the relative age of the iPhone installed base of roughly 19 months, we did not expect promotions to be this aggressive,” UBS analyst David Vogt noted. That activity may keep investors excited about next quarter regardless of what happens in the current quarter, he added. “Investor focus will be on iPhone 12 ‘color’ provided by management on the earnings call, effectively writing-off 3Q unit results in our view,” referring to commentary he expects from CEO Tim Cook and CFO Luca Maestri on their call with analysts after the earnings come out.

A longer-term, problem weighing on some analysts is the possible loss of revenue to Apple that Google pays to be the default search engine on iOS. Analysts estimate Google pays more than $10 billion a year for the privilege and, since the designation costs Apple nothing, the money flows straight into the Apple’s profits. But the Justice Department’s antitrust lawsuit against Google targeted the payments to Apple as possibly anticompetitive for shutting out search rivals like Microsoft’s Bing.

“Given the current DoJ antitrust lawsuit against Google, we think investors have become increasingly focused on the impact of decelerating Google’s Distribution Partner Traffic Acquisition Costs (TAC) payments to Apple,” Wells Fargo analyst Aaron Raker noted on Wednesday, using the industry term for the payments. “While the Google’s exact payments to Apple are unknown, and it is very difficult to dissect the exact growth contributions within Apple’s total services revenue (AppleCare, iTunes, App Store, etc.), reports have suggested…as much as $10.5 billion over the past trailing-twelve months ending June or as much as 20% of Apple’s services revenue.”

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