has its work cut out for it trying to surpass 2020’s blowout results. The thing is, the tech giant just might be able to pull it off.
The buzz around Apple last year was off the charts, even for what is the buzziest of technology companies. Anticipation of the fall launch of the company’s first 5G phones, surging demand for both Macs and iPads as the pandemic rolled on, and strength in both wearables and services fed off each other. The pieces all came together in the December quarter, when Apple (ticker: AAPL) posted its biggest quarter ever. Sales soared 21% to $111.4 billion, more than $8 billion over the Street consensus. Every product category—iPhone, iPad, Macs, wearables, and services—notched double-digit growth. Apple stock finished the year up 81%, adding nearly $1 trillion to its market cap.
That’s a tough act to follow, particularly with the March quarter, which always slows from the holiday-boosted December quarter. But Apple could pull off the quintuple double again when its results come out after the bell Wednesday. The Street certainly thinks so, even if the market, which has pushed Apple shares up less than 2% in 2021, has been more cautious. Consensus estimates call for double-digit increases from last year across the board: iPhones sales up 43%, to $41.4 billion; iPad sales up 29%, to $5.6 billion; Mac sales of $6.8 billion, up 27%; wearables sales (mostly Apple Watch and AirPods) of $7.4 billion, up 18%; and a 16% bump in services, to $15.5 billion.
Overall, the Street consensus expects sales of $77 billion, up 32% from a year ago, with profits of 98 cents a share. That would be the fastest top-line growth rate for any Apple quarter since March 2012, when revenues were about half what they are now. And most bullish Apple analysts seem to think their own estimates are too low—a print at $77 billion would likely trigger a selloff in the stock.
Apple is also expected to provide an update on its capital-allocation strategy. A year ago, the company announced a 6% dividend increase, and boosted its stock repurchase plan by $50 billion. Apple has said repeatedly that it is pushing to get to a cash neutral position, but its remarkably big cash flow has slowed progress toward that goal.
As always, the quarter is about more than just earnings.
For one, the Street will be looking for signs that the sales surge for Macs and iPads is sustainable—and that the company is keeping up with demand despite widespread chip and display shortages. Some investors worry that the spike in PC demand could ebb as more people return to schools and offices. They’ll be looking for company guidance on that point.
Another is the sustainability of the resurgence in iPhone growth. There were high hopes among bulls that the iPhone 12 would drive a “supercycle” with an accelerated replacement cycle. Several analysts have noted that a clear consumer preference for the high end of the iPhone 12 line is driving up average selling prices, which should support a strong revenue quarter for the segment.
“Given the later-than-seasonal launch of new iPhones in the fall of 2020, we believe iPhone demand will experience more favorable year-over-year comparisons this March quarter compared to past years,” writes Monness Crespi Hardt’s Brian White, who sees 47% iPhone revenue growth during the quarter.
And if Apple pulls it all together? Apple could crush Street estimates, writes Morgan Stanley analyst Katy Huberty, who has an Overweight rating and a $158 price target on the stock, up 17% from Monday’s close of $134.72. She sees the top line above $80 billion, with all segments growing at least 19% year over year. She is especially bullish on Mac and iPad sales, with estimates far above consensus—53% for Macs and 52% for iPads. She also expects Apple to increase its dividend by 10% and expand its stock repurchase program by $60 billion.
That would certainly qualify as a job well done.
Write to Eric J. Savitz at [email protected]