Apple Inc. began the new year by revealing it would miss a quarterly revenue target for the first time since 2002 — but consumers and investors heard much more than that.
There was the sound of the curtain falling on two of the growth stories of the past decade: smartphones and China. Then came the din of second-guesses to Apple’s strategy of consistently raising prices. And finally, came the worries that nothing as profitable as the rise of mobile computing has been for investors over the past decade will soon emerge to succeed it.
“Where is that next spark that will light us all up?” Kara Swisher, technology journalist, asked in a New York Times column Friday.
Apple late Wednesday said revenue for the last three months of 2018 missed expectations, chiefly due to weakness in China. The effect of the statement rippled more than most corporate warnings because Apple’s products are so ubiquitous, its connections to other companies so broad, its stock so valuable and trouble, real trouble, for the company so rare.
In Minnesota, Apple’s announcement reverberated in share drops of Maplewood-based 3M Co., the diversified manufacturer that sells many products in China and provides materials in smartphones, and Richfield-based Best Buy Co., the nation’s largest electronics retailer and top seller of Apple products. Shares in both recovered in a broad market rally Friday.
And two of the most prolific and closely followed analysts of Apple, Gene Munster of Loup Ventures and Piper Jaffray’s Mike Olson, both from Minneapolis, went into overdrive trying to assess what it all meant. In interviews, both said the company is at a crossroad and so are investors. But their reasons varied, shedding light on the broader debate around Apple.
Munster, who became known nationally in the early 2000s when, as a Piper Jaffray analyst, he made an early call on Apple’s hypergrowth, said the reaction to last week’s warning showed that the future of Apple’s stock hinges on the company’s ability to lead the way on another “next big thing” as it did when computing shifted to mobile devices a decade ago. “Investors don’t value earnings. They value revenue growth,” Munster said. “The question is, does Apple take an approach of investing more in growth?”
Olson said he thinks investors in most tech companies care more about revenue than growth but that Apple’s investors balance them out. For him, the company’s revenue warning signified a slip in the company’s ability to execute.
“The real concern for many investors … is that the company has lost its ability to provide the right products in the right markets at the right time and that Apple management has lower visibility into the company’s future performance than what it had historically,” he said.
Apple shares fell 10 percent Thursday, their steepest one-day drop since 2013. The company in August became the first U.S. firm to have a market value of $1 trillion. But its shares started to fall after reaching an all-time high in early October as investors began to get nervous about whether new iPhones would meet prior-year sales levels. The shares closed Friday 37 percent below the October peak.
For several weeks, news from Apple suppliers in Taiwan and elsewhere hinted that iPhone sales would not live up to expectations. Its warning confirmed those reports and zeroed in on China, the company’s third-largest market after the Americas and Europe.
China has been the world’s largest market for cellphones for more than a decade and, in a sign of its rising wealth, the country’s consumers upgraded to smartphones nearly as quickly as those in more developed markets. But sales of smartphones have leveled off there as well as globally, where unit shipments have hovered around 1.4 billion since 2015 and actually fell in 2017 and likely in 2018.
As well, with the pace of new features in smartphones slowing down, consumers are hanging on to them longer. Apple’s response to that development has been to raise prices in hopes of preserving revenue. But last week’s announcement showed that strategy may not be working in China, where it competes with several domestic producers like Huawei and Xiaomi that offer comparable phones at lower prices.
Like many analysts, Olson lowered his price target on Apple’s stock. For Munster, the timing of Apple’s announcement couldn’t have been worse: It came just days after he made several predictions for the tech sector in 2019, including one that Apple’s stock would outperform the other U.S. tech giants — Google, Amazon, Facebook and Netflix. “We’re still standing behind that, though this is not how I wanted the year to start out,” he said.
He said he believes that Apple’s fundamental drive to sell several technology devices to consumers and then deliver services on top won’t change. But he is waiting to see whether executives signal bigger spending in three areas of potentially large growth: entertainment content, wearable devices and automobiles.
While the growth bet is up in the air, he said Apple is on the verge of offering a service that has long been a feature of other industries where products are expensive: financing.
“They’re going to make it easier for people to purchase their products on a subscription basis,” Munster said. “I think you’ll see news out in the next year around that.”