Apple Inc posted its third successive quarter of declining iPhone sales on Tuesday, sending shares slipping despite the promise of better-than-expected holiday sales.
The world's most valuable publicly traded company said improved sales from China were around the corner, despite revenue falling almost 30 percent from the country in the fiscal fourth quarter. It said sales so far to India have only scratched the surface.
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But a slight miss on quarterly revenue and a projection of gross profit margins slightly behind analyst targets reflected broader concerns that Apple may have lost its tech superiority, even with the refreshed iPhone 7.
"In essence, in China and elsewhere, while Apple���s products are still seen favorably, the distance between Apple and its competitors is nowhere near as great as it once was," Neil Saunders, head of retail research firm Conlumino, wrote in a note.
Apple shares fell 2.8 percent to $114.99 in after-hours trading.
Chief Financial Officer Luca Maestri said in a phone interview with Reuters it was "impossible to know" if there was any effect yet from rival Samsung Electronics Co Ltd halting production of its fire-prone Galaxy Note 7 phones earlier this month.
He also said that Apple was "supply constrained" and selling all the smartphones it could make.
"It's clear that Apple is bullish about growth in the iPhone, but there's little evidence of that growth in the actual results announced today," said analyst Jan Dawson of Jackdaw Research.
"Given that the iPhone 7 and especially the iPhone 7 Plus is in short supply, Apple is going to be a little constrained in its ability to take full advantage of the strong demand we're seeing," he added.
Apple said it sold 45.51 million iPhones in the three months ended Sept. 24. That beat the average analysts' estimate of 44.8 million, according to research firm FactSet StreetAccount, but it marked a third quarter of year-on-year retreat.
Revenue fell 9 percent to $46.85 billion, a touch behind Wall Street targets, according to Thomson Reuters I/B/E/S.
That meant annual revenue fell for the first time since 2001, highlighting the slowdown in the smartphone market as well as intensifying competition, particularly from Chinese rivals.
Apple also forecast gross profit margins slightly behind Wall Street targets, projecting 38 to 38.5 percent, versus expectations of closer to 39 percent, said Mariann Montagne, senior investment analyst and portfolio manager at Gradient Investments.
"I think people were a bit surprised that they were so conservative there," said Montagne, whose firm holds Apple shares.
The stock hit a 12-month low of $89.47 in May but has marched up since as investor confidence returned.
"While we view Apple results positively, we believe shares are taking a natural pause following its strong performance in recent months," said Edward Jones analyst Bill Kreher.
Apple forecast revenue of between $76 billion and $78 billion for the current, holiday-dominated quarter, topping analysts' consensus estimate of $75.08 billion.
HOPES FOR CHINA
Apple is still optimistic about its business in China, CFO Maestri said. While gross domestic product growth in the country has slowed, the economy is still growing, the middle class is expanding and smartphone ownership remains low, he said.
Maestri said high demand for Apple's newest iPhones made the company confident about results in the first quarter.
The company's net income fell to $9.01 billion, or $1.67 per share in the quarter from $11.12 billion, or $1.96 per share, a year earlier. That beat the average estimate of $1.66 per share.
Apple's fortunes are strongly tied to the success of the iPhone, which accounts for two-thirds of its revenue.
Apple launched its iPhone 7 and iPhone 7 Plus models two weeks before the end of the quarter. Unusually, though, it did not release first-weekend sales figures, saying this data had become more of a reflection of supply than demand.
The fourth-quarter figures also include sales of the 6S and 6S Plus models as well as the smaller and cheaper iPhone SE.
Apple should have benefited from an extra week of sales in the latest quarter compared with last year.
(Additional reporting by Anya George Tharakan in Bengaluru; Writing by Peter Henderson; Editing by Ted Kerr and Bill Rigby)