4 key things to watch for in Apple’s earnings on Thursday

COVID-19 is decimating sales at the iPhone maker.

4 key things to watch for in Apple’s earnings on Thursday

There could be a strange quarterly earnings report from Apple this week. As Toni Sacconaghi, a top analyst who follows the company at Bernstein Research, put it last week: Do the numbers even matter?

That’s because with economies across the globe in lockdown, Apple has been suffering from declining sales along with almost every other consumer-tech seller. The company will report results for the first quarter, its fiscal second quarter, on Thursday after the market closes.

In February, the company admitted that its revenue would be below the $63 billion to $67 billion it had forecast just a few weeks earlier. How far below, and what Apple signals about future sales, may be the most critical information for investors in this report. After iPhone sales had come roaring back to life at the end of 2019, analysts expect the company’s overall revenue to drop about 6% from last year’s first quarter to $54.6 billion, on average. Net income is expected to decline by 8% to $2.27 per share.

Apple’s stock price has held up better than some tech companies, but it has not proved to be the best shelter in its industry. With its share price down 9% over the past three months, Apple lags Netflix’s 18% gain, a 28% rise at Amazon, or Zoom Video Communications’ 105% leap over the same period. But Apple has done better than smartwatch maker Garmin’s 19% loss; Facebook, which has lost 11%; and HP, down 25%.

Despite the uncertainty, here are four things investors will be watching in Apple’s quarterly report on Thursday.

What impact is COVID-19 having on Apple?

During the company’s previous earnings call in January, the coronavirus was still mainly an issue in China alone. CEO Tim Cook said Apple had closed some stores and was working to accommodate the loss of suppliers in Wuhan and surrounding Hubei province. Obviously since then things have gotten considerably more serious globally.

“We are all still bracing for the worst to come,” Sacconaghi wrote.

J.P. Morgan analyst Samik Chatterjee said investors may be be surprised by just how badly Apple has been hit. “The magnitude of the short-term dislocation might not be fully priced in yet, particularly given what we believe is a high likelihood that the firm will sidestep its usual practice of giving specific guidance for the next quarter,” he said in a recent report. But he expects pent-up demand will boost sales after the pandemic passes.

Goldman Sachs analyst Rod Hall downgraded his rating on Apple to “sell” on April 17, as he thinks the pandemic will hurt sales more deeply than most.

“The company has faced unprecedented production stoppage due to the COVID-19 epidemic in China, followed by likely rapid deterioration in demand with most of the rest of the world locked down in March,” Hall wrote in a report last week. “We believe consensus earnings expectations for 2021 are too high considering the weaker consumer demand environment and resulting weak [average selling prices] that we expect to persist well into next year from this recession.”

Will Apple provide any financial guidance?

Apple typically lets investors know its thinking about the current quarter with a forecast of its expected total revenue and other key data points such as its gross profit margin, tax rate, and operating expenses. But companies have been withdrawing and dropping guidance amid the pandemic. Last week, Intel, Texas Instruments, and Netflix reported results and offered second-quarter guidance. But Snapchat’s parent company, Snap, decided against giving a forecast, while Intel withdrew its projection for the full year.

Cowen analyst Krish Sankar is among those who think Apple will not give guidance. “Forecasting demand in these uncertain times, especially when there is a wide variance in personnel movement across different geographies, is extremely challenging,” Sankar said in a report on Monday. Still, he thinks over the longer term, sales will increase and rates Apple’s stock “outperform.”

Morgan Stanley’s Katy Huberty sounded a more hopeful note in her report. “While there is a small risk that Apple does not guide for the June quarter, we believe the more likely outcome is that Apple guides to a wider range than typical,” she wrote.

Sacconaghi agreed in his report. “Apple could conceivably have better visibility into the crisis than most companies, given its familiarity with China as a precedent for the rest of the world,” he wrote. “So perhaps Apple could provide fiscal Q3 guidance with a wider-than-usual range, or at least provide verbal commentary on how the quarter is trending.”

How is Apple TV+ doing?

Apple debuted its new premium streaming-video service on Nov. 1, so the just-finished quarter is the first full one for the offering. In January, Cook said Apple TV+ was “off to a rousing start,” but he didn’t reveal any hard numbers. CFO Luca Maestri went so far as to say that revenue from the service was “immaterial,” which wasn’t surprising, given that Apple offered a free one-year subscription to buyers of new iPhones and other devices.

The Apple service enters a crowded market, with Disney saying its new streaming service already has more than 50 million paid subscribers. And Netflix said last week that it had gained 16 million new subscribers in just the first quarter.

“We hope to get a better idea of what the free trial take rate has been in this quarter, as that then would have a material impact on our services growth expectations this year,” Goldman Sachs analyst Hall noted in a report.

Will 5G iPhones be delayed?

Cook usually plays his cards pretty close to the vest. Too many times to count since Cook took over as CEO has an analyst asked about a future product only to get the brush-off. During a conference call last quarter, Morgan Stanley analyst Huberty tried to get some information about Cook’s view of 5G and got the standard response from the CEO: “Sorry. We don’t comment on future products.”

But with so many reports circulating that Apple has delayed ramping up manufacturing of this year’s crop of new iPhones, it’s possible Cook will address the rumors.

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