Apple's Earnings: the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

It's been a wild ride for Apple and its investors over the past year. What seems, on the surface, as a cheap stock with multiple margins of safety can also be viewed as a lumbering giant with few meaningful growth opportunities, depending on your perspective.

Apple's fourth-quarter and full-year results are in, and while investors are eagerly awaiting news that the company has once again discovered its innovative magic, the results are mixed.

The good
For the past year, the market panicked that Apple had reached its peak, and that we were all witnessing the slow decline into irrelevancy of a technology giant that lost its innovative power. To the company's detractors, Apple's declining growth was symptomatic not just of a company reaching the limits of economic inevitability, but instead symbolic of the death of a company whose business was forever irreparably damaged.

And yet, it's hard to maintain that assertion if a company is still growing, which Apple is. Revenue was up 4.2% in the quarter, and the company sold more iPhones and iPads in its recently concluded fourth quarter than it did in the same quarter one year ago. All told, the company sold 33.8 million iPhones, a record for the September quarter.

Meanwhile, full-year revenue rose 9.2%, and the company ended the fiscal year with nearly $147 billion in cash, equivalents, and long-term marketable securities, up more than $25 billion from the same point in 2012.

The bad
Unfortunately, Apple continued its recent habit of falling earnings, the primary driver of which is contracting margins. Gross margin clocked in at 37% in the fourth quarter, a three percentage-point drop from the same quarter last year. Not surprisingly, earnings per share also fell, by nearly 5% to $8.26 per share. For the full year, Apple earned $39.75 per diluted share, a 10% decline year over year.

Doubts about Apple's ability to keep margins up are the main factor behind the stock's poor performance. Even after rallying to $500 per share, the stock has still lost a quarter of its value since its closing high of $702.10 per share reached in September 2012.

For those who feel Apple is falling behind, but still want exposure into the rapidly growing mobile space, chip maker Qualcomm offers both growth and income. Over the first nine months of the year, Qualcomm has booked 27% operating income growth, due largely to impressive 29% growth in total revenue over the same time period. And, the company's 2% dividend yield serves as icing on the cake.

The ugly?
The initial market reaction to Apple's report was negative, as shares of the technology giant dropped immediately after the release. This was probably due to the company handing in a first-quarter margin outlook that disappointed. Apple expects a margin in the crucial holiday quarter to be between 36.5% and 37.5%, below expectations of 37.9%.

Clearly, the market is concerned that margins are still contracting, although this is a phenomenon that has been known for some time. Apple has decided to offer lower-priced products in exchange for expanding its business into new markets populated with consumers who could not previously afford Apple products.

For example, Apple may soon announce its long-awaited partnership with China Mobile , the largest telecommunications company in the world. China Mobile has more than 700 million subscribers, and the company, as of yet, does not offer any Apple products.

As much as Apple would love to have hundreds of millions of new customers in its ecosystem, there's plenty of evidence to suggest China Mobile needs this partnership just as much. China Mobile's most-recent quarter saw profits fall nearly 9%. The major culprit for China Mobile has been that while it's able to continue registering subscriber growth, as indicated by the fact that the total number of 3G subscribers grew by more than 31 million year over year, high-quality subscribers have been hard to come by. Consider that China Mobile's average revenue per user through the first nine months of the year has declined.

The bottom line
Apple has plenty of fans and critics, and it's doubtful that anyone on either side changed their minds after the company's earnings report. All eyes now turn to the pivotal holiday shopping season. Let's not forget investors have a 2.3% and $60 billion buyback serving as downside protection. Should strong sales of the iPhone 5C and iPhone 5S continue into the first quarter, there's no reason to think the upward trend can't continue.

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The article Apple's Earnings: the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly originally appeared on

Bob Ciura owns shares of Apple. The Motley Fool recommends Apple. The Motley Fool owns shares of Apple, China Mobile, and Qualcomm. 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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