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Don't panic about iPhone sales just yet

Less than two months after Apple refreshed its smartphone lineup, investors are once again panicking about w...

Posted: Nov 13, 2018 6:19 PM
Updated: Nov 13, 2018 6:19 PM

Less than two months after Apple refreshed its smartphone lineup, investors are once again panicking about whether enough people are buying iPhones.

Apple's (AAPL) stock fell 1% Tuesday after tumbling 5% on Monday, shaving off tens of billions of dollars in market value. The stock fell after iPhone parts suppliers Japan Display and Lumentum Holdings cut their sales outlooks. On Tuesday, another Apple supplier, Qorvo, followed suit in cutting its forecast, citing "recent demand changes for flagship smartphones."

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Although the suppliers did not mention Apple specifically, the announcements were quickly interpreted by Apple analysts and investors as a possible warning sign of weaker than expected iPhone demand.

Citing the Lumentum cuts, Goldman Sachs analysts expressed "concern" in an investor note Tuesday that "demand for new iPhone models is deteriorating." Yet in the very next sentence, the analysts said Apple "could easily right itself given the bulk of demand comes in late December."

Such is the uncertainty that comes with trying to read the tea leaves for the world's most valuable company. Even dire forecasts from multiple suppliers may not be enough to give a complete and accurate picture of Apple's sprawling global business.

"Interpreting data points around demand from the supply chain is a dangerous art," Gene Munster, an analyst with Loup Ventures, told CNN Business. "Historically, investors have drawn the correct conclusion as many times as the wrong one."

Case in point: Apple faced a similar Wall Street panic this spring after one of its key chip suppliers warned of "continued weak demand." Analysts raised concerns about demand for the $999 iPhone X. Then Apple reported strong earnings results and announced that the iPhone X had become its top selling smartphone.

"The Apple growth story being dead has been greatly exaggerated. We've seen this many times over the past few years," Daniel Ives, an analyst with Wedbush, tells CNN Business.

What's making this cycle of fearful headlines worse is Apple's recent decision to stop disclosing the number of iPhones, iPads and Macs it sells each quarter. This reduced transparency has made some investors nervous that Apple is "trying to hide something," Ive says.

In the three months ending in September, Apple sold just shy of 47 million iPhones, representing virtually no growth in the number of smartphones sold from the prior year. In future quarters, and indeed future years, the number of iPhones Apple sells could decline.

Yet Apple's overall revenue continues to climb from one year to the next as it hikes prices across the board and makes more money from supplementary services like iCloud, Apple Pay and Apple Music. Wall Street is still processing this shift.

That's not to say there aren't real concerns ahead. Earlier this month, Apple said it expects sales in the all-important holiday quarter to come in shy of analyst estimates due in part to foreign exchange headwinds and macroeconomic concerns in emerging markets.

In particular, some analysts have focused on Apple's traction in China, a key growth market for the company. But Ross Gerber, an activist investor and CEO of Gerber Kawasaki, says his firm has been tracking China sentiment closely and remains optimistic about Apple's position there.

"The Chinese sentiment hasn't changed toward Apple. They are buying Apple products without any hesitation because of trade issues," Gerber says. As an example, he notes that Apple was the top selling mobile phone brand during Alibaba's Singles Day online shopping event this year, beating out local rivals.

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