AT&T Confirms Verizon's Theory: iPhones Hurt

What's good for the goose is most certainly not always good for the gander.

Before its after-hours earnings report, shares of Apple (NAS: AAPL) plunged, shaving about $9 billion off the world's largest market cap. The culprit is formerly staunch Apple partner AT&T (NYS: T) , whose own shares rose 4% on a terrific earnings report.

Yeah, you read that right: AT&T's good news is bad for Apple. Ma Bell beatanalyst estimates in the first quarter, with earnings of $0.60 per share on $31.8 billion in sales. Margins expanded nicely, in part thanks to fewer iPhone sales than expected. AT&T sold a record number of smartphones, but the 4.3-million-iPhone haul left many analysts scratching their heads.

Wham, bam, thank you, Apple
Isn't it obvious, though? Verizon (NYS: VZ) reported similar trends last week, leaning less on Apple sales and reaping the margin rewards. AT&T has changed its marketing tactics and now treats a Windows phone by Nokia (NYS: NOK) as the smartphone to end all smartphones -- and that model comes with far smaller subsidy costs than the iPhone. that model comes with far smaller subsidy costs than the iPhone.

So AT&T and Verizon have found a magic bullet to boost their bottom lines, and it involves selling smartphones with stronger margins for the carriers. Imagine that -- the gatekeepers of mobile services could benefit from selling more profitable products. I think they just might do more of that from now on. The mobile networks have milked Apple for consumer attention for a few years, and now they're ready to move on to more profitable pastures.

From bad to worse
Apple can react to this obvious trend in two ways:

  • Stay the course on pricing and hope that consumers seek out the iPhone even without marketing help from the network providers. Or ...

  • Ship out phones with a smaller price tag, putting Apple's profit margins more in line with what Samsung or Motorola Mobility (NYS: MMI) would make from each handset sold. Yes. Motorola and Sammy make money on their handsets. But their margins are far thinner than Apple's. By some estimates, Apple currently reaps 80% of all profits in the handset market despite relatively modest market share measured in revenue and units.

The first option is an exercise in futility. Just look at Nokia's presence in the American market, where the Windows-based Lumia 900 is the first Nokia smartphone to get a helping hand. You might need a microscope to find the Finnish carrier.

The second choice would puncture Apple's biggest cash cow right away. iPhone profits would start moving out of Cupertino and into the coffers of network carriers. Either way, I think this is the beginning of the end of Apple's astounding cash machine. Even if the next iPhone update turns out to be a stunner, the easy road to riches is filling up with brambles and beasts. This is great news for telecom investors and not so good for Apple owners. And there's nothing Apple can do about it, since the carriers hold all the cards.

Adding insult to injury, the telecoms also treat their investors with more respect. AT&T spent $4.7 billion on dividends and share buybacks this quarter, for a dividend yield of 5.7% and an annualized direct return of cash to shareholders of $18.8 billion. That leaves Apple's recent promise of returning $15 billion a year to shareholders looking stingy, especially in the light of Apple's seemingly bulletproof cash flows. Learn more about rock-solid dividend stocks in this free report, including a detailed rundown of AT&T's generous policies. But the report won't be free much longer, so grab yours right now.

At the time thisarticle was published Fool contributorAnders Bylundholds no position in any of the companies mentioned. Check outAnders' holdings and bio, or follow him onTwitterandGoogle+. The Fool owns shares of Apple.Motley Fool newsletter serviceshave recommended buying shares of Nokia and Apple and creating a bull call spread position in Apple. The Motley Fool has adisclosure policy. We Fools don't all hold the same opinion, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. Try any of our Foolish newsletter servicesfree for 30 days.

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