Arik Hesseldahl

Recent Posts by Arik Hesseldahl

Earnings Preview: That’s One Big, Powerful Apple

Apple will report its quarterly results today after the close of markets, and all indications are that the company will report nothing but strength on all fronts.

It will, of course, be Tim Cook’s first earnings call as CEO since taking over the job on a permanent basis this summer. There will naturally be questions from analysts about any changes in direction, however slight, that may result following the death of founder and Chairman Steve Jobs. Don’t expect much in the way of changes, nor in meaningful answers to questions about them. As much as Jobs is missed, Apple is in the strongest business shape it has ever been in, and shows no sign of slowing down.

Today’s earnings report, which will also be the final report of Apple’s 2011 fiscal year, will only make that fact more plain. Unless something went terribly wrong — and there is no sign that anything did — it will be Apple’s first year with sales north of $100 billion.

The consensus of Wall Street analysts says that Apple will report sales of $29.45 billion, which would be an improvement of more than $9 billion and 45 percent over the same quarter last year, and profits of $7.28 per share, which would be a 57 percent jump.

But as is always the case with Apple, the consensus has a way of being conservative. Sales of the iPhone 4, despite the buzz leading up to the release of the iPhone 4S, remained strong, said Gene Munster, analyst with Piper Jaffray, in a note to clients yesterday.

Munster expects Apple to report sales of 22 million iPhones in the quarter, slightly more aggressive than some estimates, by buyside analysts, of 20 million. “We believe sales of earlier iPhone models, like the iPhone 3GS, held up through the September quarter, which suggests global customers also remained interested in the iPhone 4 head of the anticipated update,” Munster wrote. The iPhone accounts for 46 percent of Apple’s sales.

That means good things for Apple’s gross profit margin, as components used in the older models became cheaper. Munster expects a gross margin of 39 percent, beating Apple’s previous guidance of 38 percent. However, if Apple maintains the gross margin it reported last quarter — 41.7 percent — it implies a much higher overall profit of $7.68 a share, Munster said.

On the iPad front, which accounts for 20 percent of Apple’s business, Munster expects Apple to report sales of 10 million units, which he admits may not seem like meaningful growth versus the year-ago quarter. But remember that last year’s September quarter came right on the heels of the launch of the iPad 1 2. The comparisons will be tough.

And don’t forget the Mac, another 20 percent of revenue. Market research firm NPD reported Mac sales up 20 percent in each of the three months of the quarter. Munster says the street consensus implies Mac unit sales growth of 16 percent, but the NPD numbers imply growth closer to 20 percent.

Finally, all eyes will be on Apple’s guidance for the holiday quarter just ahead. Apple will likely give its usual conservative guidance, which has averaged about 2 percent below the Street on revenue and 10 percent below the street on per-share earnings. But it typically beats the Street’s estimates by an average of 9 percent and 28 percent, respectively. Right now, the consensus view on the December quarter calls for sales of $36.6 billion and profits of $8.98. Plan accordingly.

Munster rates Apple shares “overweight” — the equivalent of “buy” — with a price target of $607. Yesterday, Apple shares hit another lifetime high of $426.70, and closed at $419.99. The shares are up about 27 percent this year.

Update: I corrected my reference above to the timing of the iPad 2 release.

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The problem with the Billionaire Savior phase of the newspaper collapse has always been that billionaires don’t tend to like the kind of authority-questioning journalism that upsets the status quo.

— Ryan Chittum, writing in the Columbia Journalism Review about the promise of Pierre Omidyar’s new media venture with Glenn Greenwald