A customer looks at an iPhone 5 near Madrid. (Angel Navarrete, Bloomberg )
Despite posting a 24% increase in profit, Apple Inc. disappointed investors, who briefly sent the company's shares below $600 for the first time in three months.
Lower-than-expected profit and disappointing iPad sales capped off a rocky month on Wall Street for Apple, which has seen its shares fall 13% since the release of the iPhone 5 on Sept. 21. The stock was so volatile that trading in Apple shares had to be temporarily halted right before the company released its earnings Thursday.
The Cupertino, Calif., technology company wasn't the only big firm reporting lackluster earnings. E-commerce giant Amazon.com Inc. widely missed Wall Street expectations for its third quarter, reporting a loss of $274 million.
It was a mixed quarter for Apple. For the three months ended Sept. 29, the world's most valuable company reported fiscal fourth-quarter revenue of $36 billion, up 27.2% over the same quarter last year. Profit totaled $8.2 billion, or $8.67 a share, up 24.2% from $6.6 billion, or $7.05, in the year-earlier period.
Analysts had forecast earnings per share of $8.75 on revenue of $35.8 billion.
Overall, the company's results were still impressive, but "unfortunately there were some wrinkles to it," said Alex Gauna, managing director of technology research at JMP Securities.
"They've missed expectations for the third time in the last year and a half; that's uncharacteristic of Apple and it's something we're going to have to get used to," Gauna said. "It's not a bulletproof story anymore. Not to make too much of missing expectations — the Street does have a way of getting ahead of itself — but it does point out that it is getting harder and harder for Apple to surprise on the upside."
Apple sold 26.9 million iPhones during the quarter, up 58%, which was in line with expectations. Chief Executive Tim Cook said in a call with analysts that the company continued to see robust demand for the iPhone 5 and "we are in a significant state of backlog right now."
"In terms of the production, our output has improved significantly since earlier this month," Cook said. "It's difficult to predict when supply and demand will balance."
The company had a tougher time with sales of iPods, which fell 19% to 5.3 million units, and with its tablet sales. The company reported that it sold 14 million iPads in the quarter, down from analysts' recently reduced estimate of 15 million units.
Cook said he was confident the tablet market would surpass the PC market and told analysts that the company wasn't worried about the cannibalization of the iPad from its newly unveiled iPad mini, which it introduced Tuesday after months of rumors.
He sought to downplay reports that Apple had never wanted to produce a mini, saying that when co-founder Steve Jobs criticized smaller tablets, he was referring to 7-inch tablets (the iPad mini has a 7.9 inch screen).
"Let me be clear: We would not make one of the 7-inch tablets; we don't think they're good products and we would never make one," Cook said. He also took a swipe at rival Microsoft Corp.'s Surface, saying he hadn't yet used the hybrid laptop-tablet device but thought it was "a fairly compromised, confusing product."
Although the iPad mini was quickly criticized by consumers and investors for being too expensive, Apple Chief Financial Officer Peter Oppenheimer said Thursday that the tablet was aggressively priced and had a gross margin that was "significantly lower" than the company's average.
For the current quarter, which includes the all-important holiday shopping season, Apple forecast revenue of $52 billion and earnings per share of about $11.75. The company cautioned that it had an unprecedented number of new devices in the pipeline and expected that 80% of its revenue for the quarter would come from new products released in the last six weeks.
During regular trading before it released its earnings, Apple's stock fell $7.29, or 1.2%, to $609.54.