An iPhone XR Shortfall Could Have a Silver Lining for Apple
The iPhone XS, left, and XS Max cost significantly more than the XR.

In recent weeks, there have been at least a few indicators suggesting early iPhone XS demand is healthy.

Nonetheless, last week, Apple  (AAPL) issued a December quarter revenue forecast that was mostly below consensus estimates. The company guided for revenue of $89 billion to $93 billion (up 1% to 5% annually) versus a pre-earnings consensus of $92.9 billion.

If a report from Japan's Nikkei is on the mark, the main culprit for the guidance might not be the iPhone XS, but the iPhone XR. The Nikkei, which has a long history of reporting on Apple and Samsung's orders to suppliers and contract manufacturers, says top iPhone contract manufacturer Foxconn is using about 45 production lines to make the 6.1-inch XR, after having originally prepared close to 60 lines.

The paper adds that fellow contract manufacturer Pegatron is "suspending plans to ramp up [iPhone XR] production and awaiting further instructions from Apple." On the other hand, orders for the iPhone 8 and 8-Plus, which received $100 price cuts in September, are said to have gone up.

Apple's shares fell 2.8% in Monday trading following the Nikkei's report, and chip suppliers such as Cirrus Logic (CRUS) , Qorvo (QRVO)  (believed to have stronger exposure to the XR than the XS) and Skyworks  (SWKS) also sold off. Apple is now down close to 9% from Thursday's close, after having sold off on Friday due to its revenue guidance and plans to stop breaking out iPhone, iPad and Mac unit sales. Shares were rising 1% on Tuesday late morning.

When gauging the implications of the Nikkei's report, it's worth keeping in mind that demand trends can be fluid. In January, the Nikkei reported that Apple had cut its Q1 iPhone X production target in half following lower-than-expected holiday sales. And not long after that, Apple issued March quarter revenue guidance that was below a consensus that had already dropped by about $3.5 billion in the weeks going into earnings.

In that case at least, the Nikkei's report about an iPhone production cut, which immediately received harsh criticism from some Apple fans and investors, meshed with the guidance that Apple would later provide.

However, in spite of its light March quarter outlook, Apple wound up seeing fairly healthy iPhone X demand in the following two quarters. While iPhone unit growth was limited in both Apple's June and September quarters, the iPhone X helped drive annual average selling price (ASP) increases of $118 and $175, respectively. That ASP growth had much to do with the $1 billion-plus revenue beats Apple reported for each quarter.

Only time will tell whether the XR's performance will see a similar reversal. But it is worth noting that on Apple's earnings call, Tim Cook mentioned Apple is seeing "pressure" in emerging markets such as India, Brazil, Turkey and Russia, while adding that the dollar's strengthening against local currencies has been a headwind. These are the kinds of markets where the XR's lower price tag (it starts at $749 in the U.S.) relative to the XS ($999 starting price) and XS Max ($1,099 starting price) is a major selling point. Should macro conditions and/or local currencies strengthen in emerging markets, XR sales could benefit.

If there's a silver lining to the Nikkei's report, it's that a stronger mix of iPhone XS and XS Max sales relative to XR sales is a positive for ASPs. Worries that the XR would seriously cannibalize XS sales are starting to look misplaced. Display quality, camera quality and build/finish all tend to matter to high-end smartphone buyers. And in these respects, the XS and XS Max, with their OLED displays, dual rear cameras and stainless steel frames, each outclass the XR and its LCD display, single rear camera and aluminum frame.

"We think the report just serves to support the numbers and narrative we got on the September quarter release and earnings call," said Zev Fima, research analyst for Jim Cramer's Action Alerts Plus portfolio, which owns Apple. "Apple is selling more higher-priced iPhone models than analysts and maybe even management thought they would, as indicated by the significant ASP beat, and as a result, demand for the lower-priced model, the XR, is taking a bit of hit. It's news that we don't view as being all that surprising and something we think speaks to Apple's pricing power."

For the moment, the consensus is for Apple's iPhone ASP, which got a healthy boost in the year-ago period from the iPhone X launch, to rise by just $17 annually in the December quarter to $813. Should the mix of iPhone XS/XS Max sales to XR sales be better than expected, that would probably drive some upside to this quarter's ASP estimates.

And in terms of revenue and particularly gross profit dollars, such ASP upside would offset some of the impact from any iPhone XR shortfall.

Apple is a holding in Jim Cramer's Action Alerts PLUS member club. Want to be alerted before Jim Cramer buys or sells AAPL? Learn more now.

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