Is Apple A Buy Based On Its Earnings?

By Aaron Levitt | October 23, 2012 AAA

While Dow component and aluminum producer Alcoa (NYSE:AA) may kick off the overall earnings season, the only company that matters for the tech world lately has been Apple (Nasdaq:AAPL). Driven by its innovation and its propensity to create devices "No one knew we needed, but now we can't live without," the Cupertino, California-based tech firm has managed to put up some great results over the last few years. However, the company's latest results weren't on par with what we've come to expect from the tech giant. The question now remains whether or not Apple's disappointment was a onetime bungle or something more serious.

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The Nuts and Bolts
Based on sales of $36 billion, Apple earned a profit of $8.2 billion for the quarter ending September 29. That works out to be roughly $8.67 per diluted share.

These results were higher versus the year-ago quarter. Apple saw revenue of $28.3 billion and net profit of $6.6 billion, or $7.05 per diluted share during that time.

Apple saw overall sales number growth across a variety of its product lines. The star of the show was the 58% year-over-year unit growth in its marquee iPhone line. Additionally, Apple sold 26% more iPads and 1% more Mac portable computers versus the year-ago quarter, and 9% more Mac desktops. The only dim spot was in iPod unit sales, which slipped 19% from last year.

International sales accounted for 50% of the quarter's revenue. Apple also raised its cash, short- and long-term investments to $121.3 billion. Analysts were expecting EPS of $8.75 on revenue of $35.8 billion for the quarter. Wall Street had also been expecting better numbers from unit sales. While iPhone shipments were right on the money, Analysts had expected the firm to ship about 3 million more iPads. Apple lowered its fourth quarter earnings projections to $11.75 EPS on revenue of $52 billion. Gross Margins also came in less than expected for the quarter at 40% versus 40.5%.

SEE: How To Decode A Company's Earnings Report

Issues to Think About
The biggest concern facing investors in the firm is the poor sales showing in its iPad unit. The fact that the firm sold 3 million less units than analysts were predicting is a bit troubling. Last quarter, Apple sold a record 17 million iPads after the third generation of the device debuted. While some analysts postulated that the rumored iPad Mini launch had taken a bite out of the devices sales, Apple still missed those adjusted down sales projections. The tablet PC space continues to get more crowded, with new high-tech devices from Google (Nasdaq:GOOG), Microsoft (Nasdaq:MSFT) and even Amazon (Nasdaq:AMZN) hitting store shelves just in time for the holidays. Consumers really do have plenty of choices now to consider when they are shopping for a tablet. That increasing quality competition could be an issue for the firm going forward, as CEO Tim Cook revealed that the iPad accounted for the bulk of the company's revenue - about $7.5 billion - during the quarter.

The second big issue is the declining earnings forecast for the critical fourth quarter. Following many other firms' leads, Apple has adjusted down its expectations amid the weakening economy and pending fiscal cliff/election issues. This adjusted forecast suggests a very rare earnings decline for Apple. Historically, Apple has provided pretty conservative earnings forecasts - it's much easier to beat expectations that way. However, CFO Peter Oppenheimer blamed the lowered forecast not only on the slowing economy, but on dwindling margins. The reason being that Apple currently has so many new products with completely new designs. These more brand-spanking new devices are much more expensive to produce in the early stage of their life cycles. Oppenheimer says Apple is "at the height of the cost curve" in manufacturing them.

Bright Spots
But those new devices are Apple's biggest bright spots. The launch of the new iPhone 5, iPad mini and the surprise update to the standard iPad will drive sales this holiday season. Apple typically gets a huge sales surge after product announcements. With three new devices as well as the pending launch of streaming music service similar to Pandora (NYSE:P) should help Apple gain sales volumes during the next quarter. Already, according to the company's conference call, Apple stores have hosted roughly 94 million visitors, versus 77.5 million a year ago. That's an increase of 22%. All of those visitors could be tempted by the iPad Mini's cheaper $329 base price. All in all, analysts predict that by the end of the fourth quarter, Apple will have a backlog of orders for its new suite of devices.

The next big win is that Apple still made money - lots of it. The company still managed to grow its war chest of cash on hand to record amounts, even after paying a healthy dividend and over $6 billion to app developers. Revenues at its iTunes store remain quite brisk as Apple set a new app sales record for the quarter and iTunes saw revenue of almost $2.1 billion. People forget that all of those iDevices are really a way for Apple to sell all of those various apps, music and movies.

The Bottom Line
The big question is whether Apple's current earnings "miss" is just transitional or something more serious. I'm inclined to believe it's just a short term blip. The decline in iPad sales was clearly due to the worst kept secret of the iPad Mini launch. With so many new and hot devices on sale for the holiday's Apple should regain some of its mojo back. Margins for the devices should rise as manufacturing gets up to scale and the sales increase. At the same time, the tech firm still made oodles of money for the quarter and so far this year has generated over $41 billion in net income and over $50 billion in operating cash flow (OCF). Adding its hefty cash balance and big dividend, longer-term investors may want use any dip below $600 a share to load-up on the tech firm.

At the time of writing, Aaron Levitt did not own any shares in any company mentioned in this article.

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