Will Apple Miss Earnings Estimates?

NEW YORK ( TheStreet) -- Apple ( AAPL) reports earnings on Tuesday, July 24.

In recent weeks, an analyst here or there has expressed caution in anticipation of the company's Q3 earnings release.

For example, as Apple scribe Philip Elmer-DeWitt noted in Fortune last week, Brian Blair at Wedge Partners thinks if the consensus estimate for iPhone sales in Apple's Q3 comes in at "31 million units or higher" he "would be cautious" on the stock at least in the near-term. While Blair thinks the iPhone number will land between 28 million and 30 million, other estimates run the gamut from a low of 27 to a high of 38.5 million.

Also, Elmer-DeWitt's survey reports the average estimate of professional analysts is 29.54 million iPhones vs. 31.17 million for independents, who tend to be more bullish and less cautious re: AAPL.

Late last month, TheStreet's Chris Ciaccia relayed a similar hint of near-term bearishness from JPMorgan Apple analyst Mark Moskowitz:
Moskowitz expects Apple to report fiscal third-quarter earnings of $10.20 per share on revenue of $36.8 billion. The average estimate of analysts polled by Thomson Reuters is for a profit of $10.33 per share in the quarter on revenue of $37.33 billion.

Like most others expressing Q3-related caution, Moskowitz chalks up his concern to lag time between iPhone 4 and 5. Once the next iteration of the device hits sometime this fall, Moskowitz sees the forecast improving. In fact, even though he's concerned about fiscal Q3 and the current fiscal fourth quarter (July-August-September), Moskowitz rates AAPL "overweight" and expects shares to hit $695 by December, just $20 lower than his previous estimate of $715.

Last quarter, Apple guided down expectations for Q3, putting revenue estimates at $34 billion and EPS at $8.68 (numbers courtesy of my Briefing.com feed). Of course, a low-ball estimate from Apple should surprise no one. That tends to be standard operating procedure. Briefing reports Capital IQ analyst estimates, which, as of Monday afternoon, came in at roughly $37.4 billion and $9.95. Typically, Apple blows both numbers away.

If there was ever a risk of the company missing consensus and flirting too closely with its own guidance, it's the upcoming fiscal Q3, forthcoming fiscal Q4 report (due in October) or both.

The last time Apple missed analyst consensus estimates (but crushed its own guidance) was fiscal Q4 2011. EPS for that period came in at $7.05, while analysts expected $7.27 and management had issued downside guidance of $5.50 on its previous report. Revenue totaled $28.2 billion vs. consensus estimates of $29.3 billion and company guidance of $27.6 billion.

You always risk getting your face handed to you if you bet against AAPL ahead of earnings. In between reports, it's not quite as hard to pick spots to go long or short, but even then, you have to be nimble. AAPL can turn on a dime. It's up, for example, about 7% in the last couple weeks after moving lower from its April highs.

In this environment, cautious AAPL bulls might consider using options to approach the stock ahead of a relatively uncertain quarterly report. While another blowout or even record quarter would not surprise me, there's no question that investors should, at the very least, pause ahead of that thought. No clear catalyst exists to drive such powerful numbers from Apple this time around.

Even if you're bullish, a pullback can provide an attractive opportunity. And you don't necessarily have to just directly "buy the dips" like the message board trolls often suggest.

If you have the capital to back the trade, selling cash-secured AAPL puts ahead of earnings could make sense.

Wait for a down day between now and earnings. Look for a strike price that represents two things: One, the vicinity where you think AAPL would settle on considerable weakness and two, a price you would be more than happy to get long at, even if the stock moves lower.

For example, as of Monday's close, you could sell an AAPL August $570 put and collect the bid of $9.95. That's $995 in your pocket (options use a multiplier of 100), no matter what happens with the stock.

If AAPL breaches $570 (the put goes "in-the-money") between now and option expiration day in August, you will likely get put (be obligated to buy) 100 shares of AAPL at $570 apiece regardless of the stock's market price. At expiration, it's almost a guarantee you will get put shares on an in-the-money put.

To put the trade on in the first place, you need $57,000 in your account to cover the purchase of 100 shares of AAPL at $570 per share in the case of assignment. If you do not have the cash, you would need sufficient account equity to back the trade. I prefer cash-secured puts as opposed to dealing with margin and naked puts.

The $9.95 premium you collected acts as a partial hedge. You do not start losing money on the overall trade until AAPL dips below $560.05. That's because the $9.95 premium offsets the $570 you would have to pay to buy AAPL if put shares .

If AAPL runs or closes above $570 at expiration, you keep the premium; however, if your goal was to get long the stock you will have to make that happen some other way.

At the time of publication, the author held no positions in any of the stocks mentioned in this article.

This article is commentary by an independent contributor, separate from TheStreet's regular news coverage.