What a difference a day makes.

In the wake of a December quarter sales/EPS beat and below-consensus March quarter sales guidance on Thursday after the close, Apple (AAPL)  shares closed after-hours trading up over 3%. But on Friday, with an assist from an ugly market selloff, shares closed down 4.3% to $160.50, hitting their lowest levels since October.

Apple's report certainly wasn't without blemishes. In addition to providing light guidance, the company reported a 5% drop in Mac revenue a quarter after posting 25% growth, and iPhone unit sales (down 1% officially, but up 6% on a per-week basis) were a little disappointing, given iPhone X hype and the boost Apple got in the quarter from channel inventory growth (a $100 iPhone X price cut might be in order). And though iPad sales weren't terrible, many were hoping for stronger numbers following the launch of iOS 11.

But Apple also reported strong Services and wearables (Apple Watch/headphone) growth, and the iPhone X helped it deliver a sky-high $796 iPhone average selling price, $40 above consensus. And as the company mentioned on the earnings call, the fact that the December quarter comprised 13 weeks, one less than the year-ago quarter, affected growth rates. So whereas revenue grew 13% on a reported basis, it was up 21% on a per-week basis.

In addition, thanks to tax reform, Apple guided for a March quarter tax rate of 15% -- well below the December quarter's 25.8% rate -- and suggested its tax rate would be similar for at least the following two quarters. And the company, which ended the December quarter with $163 billion in net cash (cash minus debt), said it aims to eventually become net cash neutral following the repatriation of most of its giant offshore cash balance.

Apple insists tax reform hasn't changed its M&A strategy and so provided that a big chunk of that offshore cash isn't directed towards M&A, the stage is set for massive stock buybacks and/or dividend hikes. Particularly since Apple is producing over $50 billion in free cash flow each year.

Thanks to the lower tax rate, Apple's fiscal 2018 (ends in September) consensus EPS estimate has actually risen by a few cents to $11.45 post-earnings, even as its consensus revenue estimate has fallen by $5.6 billion to $263.9 billion. Its fiscal 2019 consensus has also risen, by $0.58 to $12.95. Should giant buybacks be announced when Apple details changes to its capital allocation program in tandem with its March quarter earnings report, EPS estimates could rise further still.

Regardless, Apple now trades for just about 12.5 times its fiscal 2019 GAAP EPS consensus (unlike many peers, Apple doesn't report non-GAAP earnings). That's well below Alphabet/Google (GOOGL) and Microsoft's (MSFT)  multiples, and also well below that of slow-growing marquee consumer brands such as Starbucks (SBUX) , Nike  (NKE) and Coca-Cola (KO) , all of which trade for at least 19 times expected fiscal 2019 EPS.

While one can debate whether Apple deserves to trade at multiples similar to Google and Microsoft, the case for it trading at a major discount to the aforementioned consumer names is much more questionable, given its very high customer loyalty rates and the continued power of its brand and ecosystem.

An earnings report delivering a mixture of good and bad data about near-term sales trends, along with some encouraging commentary about tax rates and capital return plans, definitely doesn't change that.

Jim Cramer and the AAP team hold positions in Apple, Alphabet and Microsoft for their Action Alerts PLUS Charitable Trust Portfolio. Want to be alerted before Cramer buys or sells AAPL, GOOGL or MSFT? Learn more now.

 

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