AT&T Reports Earnings, Sets the Bar High

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Investors aren't as impressed with AT&T's (NYS: T) third-quarter report as they should be. Don't get me wrong -- I'm not arguing the third-quarter numbers were better than expected. Rather, I'm saying that Ma Bell's flush Q4 outlook should have investors buying rather than selling.

More on that in a minute; first, let's dig through the financials. Revenue fell slightly to $31.5 billion in Q3, below the $31.6 billion Wall Street was targeting. Per-share earnings rose 13% after excluding one-time gains realized in last year's third quarter. Lower costs led to strong gains in the operating margin, which rose to 19.8% from 17.2% a year ago.

Investors can thank the wireless business for the structural improvements. Operating income from that airy segment rose 32% on improved margins. AT&T also passed 100 million wireless subscribers as smartphones accounted for two-thirds of device sales.

Handsets using Google's Android operating system accounted for roughly half of those sold. AT&T also activated 2.7 million iPhones during the quarter. And yet those numbers are likely to pale in comparison to what we see during the upcoming holiday shopping season.

"We expect the fourth quarter to be the best for smartphone sales ever," The Wall Street Journal quotes AT&T CEO Ralph De La Vega as saying during this morning's conference call.

Sound familiar? It should. Apple (NAS: AAPL) announced a new record for opening weekend iPhone sales after the 4s debuted on Oct. 14, leading CEO Tim Cook to express a similarly bright outlook despite reporting disappointing earnings earlier this week.

"We're very confident that we will set an all-time record in the December quarter for iPhone sales," Cook said during a call with analysts.

Therein lies the paradox. Apple came up light against estimates. AT&T met earnings estimates but fell short on revenue. We'll have a better idea about Verizon's (NYS: VZ) performance when the company reports tomorrow. But even if Big Red fails to live up to expectations, exactly none of this looks like deterioration.

If anything, it's a shift. Sales that would have come last quarter have now shifted to the holiday quarter. Be warned, short-sellers. Whether you're betting against Apple, AT&T, or Verizon, your window for profiting from the Mac maker's failure to deliver the iPhone 5 is closing rapidly.

Do you agree? Disagree? Please weigh in using the comments box below. You can also keep tabs on the wireless industry by adding any of these stocks to your Foolish watchlist:

At the time this article was published Fool contributor Tim Beyers is a member of theMotley Fool Rule Breakersstock-picking team. He owned shares of Apple and Google at the time of publication. Check out Tim's portfolio holdings and Foolish writings, or connect with him on Google+ or Twitter, where he goes by @milehighfool. You can also get his insights delivered directly to your RSS reader.The Motley Fool owns shares of Apple and Google. Motley Fool newsletter services have recommended buying shares of Apple, AT&T, and Google, as well as creating a bull call spread position in Apple. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.

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