Apple announces largest-ever $110 billion share buyback as iPhone sales drop 10%


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Apple CEO Tim Cook, right, and Deirdre O’Brien, senior vice president of retail, open the doors during the grand opening of Shanghai’s new Apple retail store, March 21, 2024.
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Apple reports earnings for the second fiscal quarter on Thursday after the markets close.

The company has set investor expectations low and could surpass them even if sales growth is weak. In February, Apple said it expected sales similar to last year’s $94.84 billion during the same period and flat iPhone sales.

Here’s what analysts expect from Apple, according to LSEG consensus estimates:

  • Earnings per share: $1.50
  • Revenue: $90.04 billion

Here’s how Apple’s business units are expected to fare in the March quarter, per StreetAccount estimates:

  • iPhone revenue: $46.31 billion
  • Mac revenue: $6.85 billion
  • iPad revenue: $5.95 billion
  • Wearables, home and accessories revenue: $7.80 billion
  • Services revenue: $23.12 billion

Analysts expect Apple to give a forecast for the current quarter of about $83.23 billion in sales, which would be 1.8% annual growth. Apple shares are down about 10% this year, underperforming its peers and the broader market. Some worry that the 2023 iPhone 15 may be seeing weak demand.

But the biggest theme that investors will be watching for is the overall trend in Apple’s third-largest market: China. In the December quarter, sales dropped 13% in Greater China, which includes Hong Kong and Taiwan.

Even worse is what the slump could indicate: Deteriorating conditions in a key market for Apple where it also manufactures the vast majority of its products. Chinese government agencies over the past year have reportedly asked staff to curtail use of “foreign” devices — iPhones — suggesting that Apple may not have the support of Chinese national leadership.

Apple also faces increased competition from local companies, including Huawei, which recently introduced a 5G smartphone despite U.S. export controls on advanced chips.

“AAPL has de-rated significantly amid a weak iPhone 15 cycle and fears that Apple’s China business is structurally impaired,” Bernstein analyst Toni Sacconaghi wrote in a note last week. He has an outperform rating on the stock.

But Sacconaghi doesn’t see Apple being permanently hampered by Chinese Communist Party sentiment, calling the current weak cycle “more cyclical than structural” and pointing out Apple’s historical volatility in the region.

“In strong iPhone cycles, Apple’s China revenues typically grow much faster than Apple overall, as Chinese consumers embrace the new phone,” Sacconaghi wrote. “The strong embrace is typically followed by several quarters of weaker (and often negative YoY growth), as we are seeing now.”

Third-party data points on China aren’t strong, either.

Data from Counterpoint Research shows Huawei surged 70% on an annual basis in March, while Apple declined 19%, falling into third place. However, analysis of the data suggests that the “preliminary signs of iPhone demand improvement … is broader than previously expected,” UBS’ David Vogt wrote this week.

Meanwhile, state statistics show iPhone sales falling 33% in February, the second consecutive month of declining shipments.

Wells Fargo analyst Aaron Rakers said in a March note that iPhone sales could be down 20% on an annual basis during the quarter.

Expectations for the quarter are muted, and how Apple says it sees the current quarter shaping up may be more important than the results for the March quarter.

“There’s a chance Apple could see a relief rally/squeeze higher on a ‘better than feared’ earnings report/guide,” Morgan Stanley analyst Erik Woodring, who has an overweight rating on the stock, wrote in an April note. “This creates a tricky setup, and one we don’t believe investors necessarily need to step in front of.”

Apple hasn’t provided guidance since 2020, but company executives give data points that analysts can use to project sales. “June quarter revenue and gross margin guidance will be critical this quarter,” Woodring wrote.

Apple also typically updates investors during second-quarter earnings about how much it plans to spend on share buybacks for the rest of the year.

“We expect Apple to update its capital return plans at March quarter earnings, and don’t expect any meaningful deviation from recent plans,” Woodring wrote. In May 2023, Apple said it had authorized an additional $90 billion in repurchases.

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