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Apple: Earnings Are Coming, and Things Are Looking a Lot Dicier This Time Around [UPDATED]


Apple isn't seeing the volume of supporting anecdotes it did the last time it reported earnings.

UPDATED All the concerns stated below have been rendered absolutely meaningless as Apple (AAPL) knocked the cover off the ball with its fiscal second-quarter earnings report, sending the stock back up above the $600 mark. The company reported a profit of $12.26 per share, smashing the consensus estimate of $10.06 per share. Sales were also very strong at $39.2 billion, easily surpassing Wall Street's expectations for $36.8 billion in revenue. iPad sales were slightly weaker-than-expected at 11.8 million. However, the company shipped a whopping 35 million iPhones, surpassing the Street's estimates and quelling a major investor concern.

After the close today, Apple will deliver, as it does every three months, the most eagerly-anticipated earnings report on the planet.

But in contrast with last quarter, the road to glory doesn't appear to be quite so smooth.

Let's hit the rewind button back to January 24, the day before Apple reported its fiscal first-quarter results. (See Apple: Don't Let the Cheap Valuation Fool You, It Has to Smash Estimates Today.)

If you recall, heading into that quarter, Apple had been on the receiving end of a huge volume of positive news and anecdotes, which I compiled as follows:

November 3, 2011: Qualcomm (QCOM), a key supplier for the iPhone 4S, delivered impressive third-quarter numbers, and huge guidance for the fourth quarter and 2012.

November 25, 2011: For Black Friday, Apple keeps with its usual 8%-10% discounts on major products, indicating that the company felt zero need to follow the industry practice of sacrificing margins to goose sales.

December 7, 2011: Key iPhone reseller AT&T (T) says that it expects the fourth-quarter to be its best single quarter ever for smartphone sales. In fact, AT&T had nearly broken its prior record before December even began. That's huge because AT&T will sell a ton of smartphones this month as well.

December 12, 2011: Within an overall stinky quarter based on the previous earnings release
(see Best Buy: Weak Sales, Weak Margins, More Buybacks!), Best Buy (BBY) specifically highlighted the Apple iPhone 4S and iPad as strong sellers.

December 14, 2011: Broadcom (BRCM), which counts Apple as a top customer, came out and said its fourth-quarter revenues and gross margins were tracking to the high end of its guidance.

January 12, 2012: Gartner said that Apple's fourth-quarter PC unit sales grew by a whopping 20.7% in the US, while the rest of the industry declined by 8.6%.
So the headline on that article fit -- expectations were high, and Apple did need to put up huge numbers.

And that's exactly what it did. Apple reported shockingly strong numbers, exceeding Wall Street's earnings and revenue forecasts by a simply ridiculous margin:

Earnings came in at $13.87 per share, beating the consensus forecast of $10.08 per share by a ridiculous 38%. Revenues rose an insane $73% to $46.3 billion, crushing expectations by $7 billion.

iPhone unit sales were a just-plain-ridiculous 37 million. Remember, iPhone sales estimates rose steadily throughout the quarter, with the Street expecting 30-32 million -- and Apple still killed it. iPad sales, a sticking point last quarter, also beat expectations with 15.4 million units moved.

And you know what else -- Mac sales were absolutely stunning, up 26% during a quarter in which the PC industry actually contracted.
But when I walked in today, it's obvious that there has been a reversal of fortune this quarter as the aforementioned positive anecdotes seem to have vanished into thin air.

Let me explain.

AT&T (T) and Verizon (VZ) underwhelmed with their March-quarter iPhone activation numbers of 4.3 million and 3.2 million, respectively. Meanwhile, Wall Street analysts are looking for iPhone sales in the 30-32 million range, so a lot of slack will have to be picked up outside the US.

Key Apple supplier Qualcomm (QCOM) reported very strong first-quarter earnings numbers, but weaker-than-expected guidance. Yes, Qualcomm was supply constrained on next-gen 28 nanometer parts, but I don't see how that would affect shipments to Apple for the iPhone 4S. (See Qualcomm Loses Its Sparkle as Supply Constraints Present a Double-Edged Sword.)

And according to Gartner, Apple's Q1 PC unit shipments grew by just 3.8% -- enough to gain market share, but a significant slowdown from the 20.7% figure put up for the December quarter.

On the plus side, Apple did get the new iPad off to a great start with 3 million in unit sales during its opening weekend, which kicked off on March 16.

In addition, flash-memory prices have been heading into the toilet, which could bode well for flash-hungry Apple's margins. (See Flash Crash! SanDisk Teases Ties With Apple, but That Relationship Is Not a Two-Way Street.)

It's obvious that expectations are not nearly as high as heading into last quarter, but truth be told, I'd rather see good news and high expectations than the uncertainty we're facing today.

I have been a proud Apple bull, and the stock remains the largest position in my portfolio, but I'd be lying if I wasn't feeling nervous heading into the report today, especially since an awful lot of folks are looking for a big beat in the face of mixed near-term signals from the supply chain.

Current consensus estimates call for Apple to deliver a profit of $10.06 per share on $36.81 billion in revenue.

However, the crowdsourced estimates complied by our buddies over at are way, way above that. Estimize indicates that the crowd is looking for earnings of $11.59 per share on $39.29 billion in revenues -- one hell of a hurdle to jump.

Now the obvious question (and I did just ask myself this while looking in the bathroom mirror): Why am I holding onto a huge position in Apple if I'm worried about what happens when the green flag drops at today's close?

It's simple. While I find the idea of long-term investing to be patently absurd (for me -- you've got to live your own life), Apple is a rare company that looks positioned to dominate its end markets for an extended period of time.

Apple is really good at everything it does (except Siri), and its competitive positioning, particularly in smartphones, is actually getting far stronger. If you need evidence, just search for recent news on Nokia (NOK), Research In Motion (RIMM), HTC, and Motorola Mobility (MMI) -- they're all getting hit hard. The only real opponent left standing is Samsung.

Remember our magic chart:

Source: Strategy Analytics

The media would like you to believe there is a Google (GOOG) Android bull market, but the truth is that there is only a bull market in Samsung phones powered by Android.

And let's look at the tablet market, which is pretty much all Apple as a huge chunk of the Android tablet market is comprised of money-losing budget models from (AMZN) and Barnes & Noble (BKS). (See Why the Google Android Tablet Market Is Far Weaker Than It Seems.)

Source: Strategy Analytics

On the computer side (remember when Apple was a computer company?) I suspect that the Mac line will get a significant overhaul this summer, which should boost sales. In particular, I see the MacBook Pro line as evolving into high-end MacBook Airs, complete with high-performance solid-state drives and snazzier looks.

So to wrap it up:

Apple looks well-positioned longer-term, but when we ask what's going to happen tomorrow -- even this Apple bull is feeling a little nervous.

On the plus side, if Apple does bomb, fast-fingered traders should be able to hit up names like Qualcomm, Broadcom, and ARM Holdings (ARMH) on the short side.

Good luck out there, friends.

Twitter: @MichaelComeau

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