If iPhone 7 expectations had been no higher as of Tuesday's close than they were when Apple's (AAPL) - Get Reportlatest flagship phones were unveiled on Sept. 7, shares would've likely shot higher in response to the company's fiscal fourth-quarter results and first-quarter guidance.
But since expectations (and Apple's shares) have risen quite a bit since then, a set of good-but-not-amazing top-line numbers and a slightly disappointing gross margin outlook have sparked some profit taking.
Apple posted fiscal fourth-quarter (September quarter) revenue of $46.85 billion -- down 9% annually, largely due to soft iPhone 6S sales ahead of the iPhone 7 launch -- and earnings of $1.67 a share. The former was nearly in line with a $46.89 billion consensus estimate, while the latter slightly topped a $1.65 consensus. First-quarter sales guidance is at $76 billion to $78 billion, above a $75 billion consensus and implying modest growth relative to year-ago sales of $75.9 billion.
In a note Tuesday, TheStreet's Jim Cramer, whoseAction Alerts PLUS Charitable Trust Portfolio includes Apple, said he and co-manager Jack Mohr are taking "a longer view on the company's growth evolution, which is why we were encouraged by the company's Services business. The segment continued to deliver explosive growth on an accelerating basis, increasing 24% year over year to $6.3 billion."
That wasn't enough to please markets: Shares fell 2.8% after hours to $115.05, and were down 3.3% in pre-market trading. That still leaves them up about 7% from where they traded before the iPhone 7 was unveiled. Chip suppliers Skyworks (SWKS) - Get Report, Broadcom (AVGO) - Get Report and Qorvo (QRVO) - Get Reportposted modest after-hours declines.
In addition to elevated sales expectations, disappointment over Apple's 1Q gross margin guidance of 38% to 38.5% appears to be weighing. Though largely favorable to a 4Q gross margin of 38% (at the high end of Apple's guidance range), the outlook implies gross margin will decline relative to the 40.1% posted in the year-ago quarter.
On the earnings call, CFO Luca Maestri suggested the higher "cost structure" of newer Apple products -- the iPhone 7 is clearly the biggest -- is pressuring margins. Memory price increases appear to be an issue here, especially with Apple having doubled iPhone storage capacities across all price tiers. Also, Maestri pointed out currency swings remain a headwind, and that year-ago margins benefited from one-time events such as a $548 million payment from Samsung related to a patent infringement suit.
On the bright side, Apple's iPhone average selling price (ASP), dinged in recent quarters by sales of the relatively cheap iPhone SE, are once more on the upswing thanks to the iPhone 7 ($649 starting price) and especially the iPhone 7-Plus ($769 starting price). iPhone ASP rose $24 sequentially in the fourth quarter to $619, and is expected in the first quarter to be "similar" to the $690 reported in last year's December quarter.
CEO Tim Cook observed the 7-Plus' share of total iPhone 7 sales has been stronger than expected. That's been good for ASPs, but has also led to supply constraints that are impacting near-term iPhone sales.
iPhone revenue (60% of total revenue) fell 13% annually in the 4Q to $28.2 billion, with units dropping 5% to 45.5 million. iPad revenue was flat at $4.3 billion; a 6% drop in units to 9.3 million offset by a $25 annual increase in ASP to $459. Strong iPad Pro sales are giving the business a boost and helping keep Apple dominant on the high-end, but a weak tablet market remains a notable headwind.
Not surprisingly, Mac sales were soft, dropping 17% to $5.7 billion. A weak PC market and a somewhat dated lineup both weighed. Apple is set to address the latter issue at a Thursday event, during which a big MacBook Pro refresh and new MacBook Air models are expected to be shown off.
Elsewhere, Apple's Services reporting segment, whose growth is tied to the growth of Apple's installed base and its ability to monetize it, remains a strong point. The segment's sales rose 24% to $6.3 billion, aided by a 43% increase in App Store revenue, continued uptake for Apple Music (now has over 17 million subscribers), and a near-500% increase in Apple Pay transaction volume. App Store revenue growth has accelerated for five quarters now.
The company's Other Products revenue, which covers Apple Watch, Apple TV, iPod and Beats sales (among other things), remains a weak spot. The division's sales fell 22% to $2.4 billion. Soft Apple Watch demand appears to be a culprit. Apple insists the Apple Watch Series 2, which launched in September, is off to a "great start," but still isn't providing any shipment figures for its smartwatch line.
On the financial front, Apple spent $6.1 billion on buybacks during the quarter, down a bit from the $10 billion spent in the fiscal third quarter. With rumors of car projects still flying around -- Bloombergreported Tuesday Apple now has a team working on a car operating system -- R&D spending rose 16% to $2.6 billion. SG&A spending, which can fluctuate due to the impact of stock compensation and marketing spending, fell 6% to $3.5 billion.
Also, Apple disclosed it spent $12.8 billion over the whole of fiscal 2016 on capital expenditures. That's up from the $11.2 billion spent in fiscal 2015, but below a prior $15 billion target. The company finished the fourth quarter with a massive $237.6 billion in cash and investments -- 91% of it is offshore, and would be subject to major taxes if repatriated -- and over $87 billion in debt.
On the earnings call, Cook was repeatedly asked about Apple's future product plans. As usual, he remained fairly tight-lipped, but did (without confirming any specific products) call the car and TV markets areas of interest, and call original content a "great opportunity." And in the wake of the AT&T-Time Warner deal -- Apple was recently reported to have held "preliminary stage" buyout talks with Time Warner a few months ago -- Cook insisted Apple is open to acquisitions of any size if they're deemed good strategic fits.
On the whole, Apple turned in respectable numbers, ones that make a lot of prior fears about a terrible iPhone 7 debut look misplaced. But markets move quickly to price in new information, especially for a company as widely-followed as Apple. And information pointing to a respectable earnings report (and perhaps then some) had already arrived.