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Apple's fourth-quarter profit falls but beats Wall Street forecasts

Amid Apple's mostly upbeat report were hints of trouble for its iPad. Sales of the tablet were flat, but CEO Tim Cook expects two new versions to give them a boost.

October 28, 2013|By Chris O'Brien
  • Apple Chief Executive Tim Cook is confident that two new iPad models will turbocharge sales. Above, the unveiling of the devices last week in San Francisco.
Apple Chief Executive Tim Cook is confident that two new iPad models will… (Karl Mondon / MCT )

SAN FRANCISCO — Apple Inc.'s fourth-quarter earnings and revenue exceeded Wall Street's expectations as sales of iPhones soared. But there were some signs of struggle for iPad sales, which remained flat.

The diverging fortunes of its two marquee products raised again the question about whether the iPad has peaked or simply hit a lull.

On a conference call with analysts Monday, Apple Chief Executive Tim Cook expressed confidence that the launch of the iPad Air this week and the iPad Mini with a Retina screen in November would turbocharge sales again.

"I think it's going to be an iPad Christmas," Cook said. "We're pretty confident."

Apple's fiscal year turned out to be a surprisingly difficult one for the iPad. Since its release three years ago, the iPad regularly rocketed past all expectations. Then this summer, Apple reported its first decline in iPad sales during its third quarter.

The news for the iPad in the fourth quarter of fiscal year 2013, which ended Sept. 30, was a bit better. Apple sold 14.1 million units, down a bit from the 14.6 million sold in the third quarter, but up from the 14 million sold in the same period last year.

But because the fourth-quarter mix of iPads includes the less expensive iPad Mini, which was introduced in October 2012, Apple's revenue from iPads fell 13% compared with a year earlier.

Meanwhile, iPhone sales continued to chug along. Apple reported that it sold 33.8 million iPhones in the most recent quarter, a 26% increase from the 26.9 million it sold in the same quarter last year. And Apple hit that mark despite the fact that Cook said availability of the iPhone 5s, introduced last month, remained "significantly constrained."

With the two new iPads, however, Cook said he expects sales of iPads in the current quarter, the first of fiscal year 2014, to be higher than last holiday season. And analysts seemed to largely share that outlook.

"I think we're going to see iPads come back," said Brian Marshall, an analyst at ISI Group. "We're going to see a very strong product cycle with the new iPads."

Not everyone was as optimistic about the iPad's future. Toni Sacconaghi, an analyst at Bernstein Research, said he expects iPad sales to be higher this quarter because the new ones would also be available in China. Last year the new models didn't go on sale in China until later than most other regions.

"One would expect growth, but it's not quite apples-to-apples comparison," he said. "The real test will be whether that holds up later in the year."

In response to a question about supplies of the new iPad Mini with Retina, Cook said he couldn't be certain that the company would be able to make enough initially for everyone who might want to buy one.

"It's unclear whether we'll have enough for the quarter or not," Cook said. "We know how many we'll have. But you never know the demand until after you start shipping."

Overall, the company reported fourth-quarter revenue of $37.5 billion, up from $35.97 billion a year earlier. That topped analysts' estimates of $36.84 billion and Apple's own guidance from last month of about $37 billion.

Apple had said revenue probably would fall at the higher end of its guidance of $35 billion to $37 billion after the company reported it sold a record 9 million new iPhones during the first weekend they were available.

Apple also said it had net income of $7.5 billion, or $8.31 a share, down from $8.2 billion, or $8.76, for the same quarter last year. Still, that topped analysts' consensus estimate of $7.93 a share.

"I thought this was a great quarter," said Brian White, a Cantor Fitzgerald analyst. "I like the fact that the iPhone showed a lot of upside."

There was some confusion during the call when Apple said it would defer $900 million in revenue from the current quarter because of its decision to offer the new Mavericks OS X and many of its mobile apps for free. Investors worried that Apple's profit margins projections were not as strong as expected, initially sending the company's stock down as much as 0.66% in after-hours trading.

But after executives explained the issue during the call, and noted that the company would have expected much fatter margins without the deferral, investors calmed down and the stock recovered.

Apple rose $3.92, or 0.74%, to $529.88 in regular trading Monday.

About the only person who might have been disappointed with the earnings report and analyst call was shareholder activist Carl Icahn.

Icahn has called on Apple to dramatically increase its stock buyback program to help increase the stocks' value. But on the call, Cook simply said Apple's board continued to review its buyback and dividend programs, and that any changes wouldn't be announced until early next year.

Twitter: @obrien

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