Apple sales surprises even the bulls

PUBLISHED : Friday, 25 April, 2014, 12:45am
UPDATED : Friday, 25 April, 2014, 6:03pm

Apple surprised Wall Street by selling more iPhones in the March quarter than even the most bullish analysts had expected.

The company threw another US$30 billion into an already sizeable stock buyback programme and instituted an 8 per cent quarterly dividend increase. And profits rose by an unexpected 7 per cent.

Apple also unveiled a seven-for-one stock split that should go down well with individuals who want a piece of a household name but could not afford to spend more than US$500 a share.

The positive numbers sent Apple's long-stagnant shares up 8 per cent. But it masked a more fundamental concern that has kept the company's once-unstoppable share price in check for over a year: when will, or can, Tim Cook pull another gadget out of Apple's hat?

"Most people will be talking about the split, increased dividend and buyback. But the real focus for the company and the stock is what and when is the new category" of product coming, said Hudson Square analyst Daniel Ernst.

"Being an Apple investor in the last couple of years has required patience. And that's something investors in the last 10 years have not had to have."

No one would argue that Apple has had a phenomenal run over the past decade - first with the iPod, then the iPhone in 2007, and finally the iPad in 2010. But now, as Google spends billions to buy up technology from robotics to artificial intelligence, and Samsung Electronics and other Android-device makers eat into Apple's market share, some are impatient to see what Apple comes up with next.

Many Apple observers are betting on another success emerging from its secretive labs in the second half. Wednesday's strong showing will appease investors who want to see some stock action in the meantime, given Apple's stock has been stuck around US$500.

"Agree completely with (Apple's) increased buyback and extremely pleased with results. Believe we'll also be happy when we see new products," tweeted billionaire activist Carl Icahn, who waged a Twitter campaign to get the iPhone maker to boost its buyback programme.

That is not to say investors did not applaud a much healthier outlook for the company than was apparent in January, when disappointing holiday iPhone sales and a revenue forecast that implied flat growth in smartphone shipments sent the stock below US$500.

Apple reported sales of 43.7 million iPhones in the March quarter, far outpacing the 38 million Wall Street had predicted. That drove a 4.6 per cent rise in revenue to US$45.6 billion, beating Wall Street's projections.

Executives singled out China and Japan, where iPhone sales jumped by strong double-digits, boosted by the recent inclusion of NTT Docomo and China Mobile as carrier partners.