Quick Thoughts on Apple's Earnings

Apple reported another weak earnings report. Even though Apple plays the expectations game, I see no reason to spend time hating those involved in creating the game. Apple’s quarterly reports contain a lot of information, most of which is more suitable for tweets and random musings. I will leave all of the growth rates and other metrics to others and instead focus on the big picture.

Apple is still in the beginning of a massive capital investment phase (which has been detailed in 10Q and 10K filings).  In the span of four weeks, Apple updated practically its entire product line.  Few were expecting such widespread updates. While the iPhone 5 was the worst kept secret, as well as the rumored iPad mini, Apple surprised us with new iPods, new Macs, and a new iPad with Retina display.  All of these updates are taking a toll on the company in terms of upfront costs, hurting margins. The first iPhone 5 produced is more expensive than the Xth iPhone 5 produced next year. The same can be said for every updated Apple product. 

When thinking of massive capital investment plans, Disney comes to mind. As the U.S. economy was collapsing in 2008, Disney’s management team, which I regard as one of the most talented teams in this global economy, placed the bet that it was the right time to increase capital spend and make needed improvements to its Parks division. The stock market hated the idea (due to the unknown involved), but management stayed the course. Fast forward to 2012, Disney’s Parks margins are only now beginning to increase as guests enjoy the final product. Disney is now able to turn on the earnings faucet and reap the rewards. 

I think Apple is following a similar path. 

Once Apple perfects the processes required to make all of these new iGadgets, the costs will come down and margins will rise. The iPhone 5 form factor will most likely stay around for the new iPhone in 2013, helping margins. The iPad lineup will probably not see any additional revisions until next fall (when I expect a thinner and lighter iPad with Retina display). Constrained supplies will dissipate and the Apple earnings faucet will be operational once again. Additional implications include the high likelihood of no new Apple products until at least WWDC in June 2013, as well as continued lumpy quarterly earnings. Competition and component availability may also change product plans. In terms of modeling, I think Apple is becoming harder to forecast. I am afraid many independent (and professional) analysts will continue to forecast near-term earnings incorrectly as the number of input assumptions increase. Finally, I have been very public about my concern that product cycles were becoming too planned and orderly (i.e. iPad in March, iPhone in the fall), which artificially impacts demand as customers alter purchasing habits, but all of this is more noise than anything else, and these patterns eventually end.  

It doesn’t matter if Apple is a few dollars short of expected 1Q13 earnings or if iPad mini margins are a few 100 basis points lower than normal. Such details change from quarter to quarter. At the end of the day, Apple’s most important goal is making great products. Everything else is mostly noise.