July 15, 2010 / 12:51 AM / 7 years ago

Apple on the defensive as earnings approach

<p>A general view of the Apple Flagship Store at Pudong Lujiazui in Shanghai July 9, 2010. Apple Inc will open its second flagship store in China, in the heart of Shanghai's financial district on Saturday, the company said on Thursday.Aly Song</p>

SAN FRANCISCO/NEW YORK (Reuters) - Apple Inc finds itself on unfamiliar ground heading into its earnings report next week: on the defensive.

Its gold-plated reputation -- honed on iconic products from the iPod to the iPad -- has come under fire from several corners in past weeks, following a crush of bad press, lawsuits and complaints over reception issues on the latest iPhone.

At the same time, Apple's stock shows signs of fatigue after a spectacular rise that catapulted it past Microsoft Corp to become the world's most valuable tech company.

To be sure, Apple's quarterly results are widely expected to impress on July 20 as consumers flock to its products and the company continues its tradition of beating Wall Street earnings estimates as it has in every quarter for at least two years.

But Apple's brand, arguably its most treasured asset, has taken a hit from the iPhone snafu and growing concerns about its secrecy and heavy-handedness in dealing with app developers and companies like Adobe Systems Inc.

"A little bit of the polish is coming off," said David Jones, chief executive of advertising and marketing giant Euro RSCG Worldwide and its parent, Havas Worldwide.

On the iPhone reception problems, Jones said Apple failed to act quickly to fix the issue, and has not been transparent.

"As long as they keep producing brilliant products, I think they'll be fine," he said. "But they're increasingly showing themselves to be arrogant in the way they handle issues."

In a surprise move, Apple announced Wednesday it will convene a Friday news conference to talk about the iPhone -- a rarity for a company that adheres strictly to a very limited annual schedule of press events. A spokesman, however, would not say whether executives will address the reception controversy.

Analysts say that bad press is not just hurting Apple's image, but also its stock. Rumors of a possible iPhone 4 recall, however unlikely, pressured Apple's shares this week, after influential publication Consumer Reports said it could not recommend the phone because of reception glitches.

Technical analysts now point to potential peril in Apple's shares, which rose more than 75 percent in the past year and have outperformed the S&P 500 index by roughly 20 percentage points in 2010.

At $252 on Wednesday, the shares were hovering near the $242 to $245 level viewed as key support -- an area where investors would be expected to buy in anticipation of a rebound.

But if Apple should fall through that level, it opens up the possibility of a decline to $221 -- its 200-day moving average -- which would be a 12 percent drop from current levels.

"It's not the worst chart I've seen, but I'd be more excited in other companies. The seeds are in place for some weakness," said technical analyst Richard Ross at Auerbach Grayson.

IT ALL DEPENDS

Many industry watchers view the iPhone's reception problems as minor and short-term. But others say it cuts to the core of Apple's identity because it is focused squarely on the quality of its prime -- and highest margin -- product.

Pacific Crest Securities analyst Andy Hargreaves doesn't think June-quarter earnings next week will provide a catalyst for shares because iPhone and iPad sales totals are largely known to investors. But he said Apple's stock could respond to how the company chooses to handle the iPhone 4 controversy.

"If they come out with a fairly quick and reasonable response that addresses the PR issue and the technical issue, then this stock has a lot of room to run ... because the September quarter is setting up to be extremely strong."

The average analyst forecast calls for earnings of $3.07 per share on revenue growth of 50 percent to $14.6 billion in the most recent quarter, according to Thomson Reuters I/B/E/S.

But given that Apple almost always beats Wall Street estimates, investors will more closely scrutinize gross margin, which is something of a wild card. Apple guided gross margin down from the March quarter, due in part to the impact of the iPad's introduction in April. Analysts are targeting a gross margin of 39 percent.

Wall Street is expecting iPad sales of roughly 3.3 million units, iPod sales of around 10 million units and strong Mac sales north of 3 million units.

But the iPhone remains Apple's most important product line and is key to its international growth plans. The device accounts for roughly 40 percent of Apple's revenue and has helped boost margins since its release in 2007.

Some analysts have brought their iPhone forecasts for the quarter down to below 8 million units, due in part to supply constraints. More optimistic estimates are closer to 9 million.

SHARES OVERVALUED?

Apple shares have outperformed peers like Microsoft Corp, Google Inc, Nokia and Research in Motion in recent months, leading some analysts to wonder if the stock is headed for some volatility.

According to an analysis by Thomson Reuters StarMine using a quantitative model, Apple shares have an intrinsic value of only $173.60 per share, significantly less than their current levels just above $250.

StarMine estimates that Apple's current share price implies a compound annual growth rate for earnings of 18.6 percent for the next decade, but forecasts the rate is likelier to be 14.3 percent.

The recent trading patterns in Apple shares suggest either a consolidation before moving higher -- or a ceiling in their value, said Vinny Catalano, global investment strategist at Blue Marble Research in New York.

He was, however, bullish about Apple in the long term, as were some other investors including Stephen Coleman, chief investment officer at Daedalus Capital, who pointed to the company's impressive growth rates.

Coleman's portfolio is 75 percent composed of Apple stock.

Coleman also pointed out that Consumer Reports still ranks the iPhone 4 as the best available smartphone, despite not recommending it.

Reporting by Gabriel Madway in San Francisco and Rodrigo Campos in New York; Editing by Edwin Chan, Tiffany Wu, Phil Berlowitz and Richard Chang.

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