Margins held steady Q/Q at 36.3% (down 10 bps) versus expectation of ~200 bps of margin contraction due to mounting headwinds.
Management issued Q4 GM guidance of 34%, 100 bps higher than Q3 33% GM guidance (which AAPL exceeded by 330 bps).
Considering the number of challenging cost environment Apple's (AAPL) Q3 performance and Q4 GM guidance are huge positives.
(1) Apple was able to maintain gross margins for Q3 and (2) According to Apple's guidance, I expect GM to hold in Q4.
The past two quarters have seen a significant lift in gross margins compared to the 3 periods prior (3Q08-1Q09) in which GM held steady at 34.7%. The rise in GM has be a major factor in the near doubling of the stock price since the January low. In the 2nd half of FY08, management started a chorus that it expects 30% GM for FY09. Even when GM turned out to be healthy for Q1 & Q2, Apple maintained its 30% GM outlook. This had many analysts and investors worried.
Last October, I reported Apple's FY09 Gross Margin Expectations Too Low arguing that GM for FY09 will come in way above the 30% guidance. In January, I wrote Apple's FY09 EPS Estimate Too Low stating that the forecasted decline in FY09 EPS by analysts wasn't not going to happen and that earnings should increase by at least 5-10% versus FY08. (For the 3 quarters already reported for FY09, EPS is up ~8% versus the same 3 quarters for FY08.) The main thesis was gross margins would come in significantly above expectations mostly due to high margin iPhone revenue becoming a larger share of total sales.
1) Mitigated numerous factors pressuring margins.
- Transitioned entire notebook line.
- Cut prices across entire notebook line and / or added increased performance.
- Back to School promotion (Mac discounts plus free 8GB iPod touch).
- Revenue mix shifted towards lower margin Macs from weak business spending affecting the Mac Pro line.
- Component prices increased, coupled with higher commodity and energy prices.
Apple repositioned its entire notebook line, cutting prices significantly on Macbook air, and on 15" and 17" inch Macbook Pros. Apple also introduced 13" Macbook pros in place of the older aluminum body Macbooks. Macbook prices were cut anywhere from $100-$300. In addition, Apple kicked off its "Back to School" program that offers discounts on Macs plus a free iPod touch valued at $229. As a result, coupled with weak business spending, revenue was skewed towards the lower-margin models.
2) Guidance of 34% translates into GM likely coming in the 36%-38% range.
- Past 4 quarters GM has exceeded guidance by an average of 370 basis points.
- GM guidance has increased sequentially 3 quarters in a row. (2Q-32.5%, 3Q-33%, 4Q-34%)
Apple has routinely sandbagged on GM guidance by an average of 350 bps over the past 11 periods, and 370 bps for the last 4 quarters. In addition, over the past 10 quarters, when Apple has raised guidance sequentially, GM either rose or remained flat sequentially except for one instance. The scatter plot of change in guidance on x-axis versus change in actual GM on y-axis demonstrates managements accuracy in forecasting GM at least with respect to direction. Therefore, we can expect GM will be up or at least flat in Q4 even in light of the challenging headwinds.
The profitability of the iPhone has played, and will pay a major roll in Apple's overall gross margins. Since Apple refuses to comment about product level margins, the iPhone's significance is often missed. Apple neglects to mention the iPhone angle due to the fact it doesn't want to discuss product level gross margins. The reasons for doing so are vast: firms desire to "cry poor" for the more money they rake in, the more money others will want to get a piece of. This extends to customers, carriers, suppliers, and competitors. Apple repeatedly exclaims it doesn't want to create an "umbrella" that would attract competitors to enter and undercut it. Therefore, much of the GM upside has been due to iPhone revenue being an increased percentage of total revenue, and since iPhone revenue is deferred, this trend will continue to intensify. I have been writing about this effect for nearly a year.
According to my Apple model, (which is i consider accurate being that its EPS variance has been 4 cents, 2 cents, 1 cent, and ZERO for the past 4 quarters) iPhone contributes an equal amount to EPS as does the Mac segment, and will surpass Mac's EPS contribution in the quarters going forward.
In Apple's 10-Q filings, it breaks out deferred revenue and deferred costs for iPhone and AppleTV reported on the balance sheet. Since AppleTV is a minute sliver of deferred revenue it is assumed that its impact on total deferred revenue (AppleTV + iPhone) is immaterial.
Looking at 4Q07, GM of deferred revenue (1- (deferred costs/deferred revenue)) is 27.5%. It was low since Apple received monthly revenue payments in place of an upfront subsidy as is the case today. 4Q08 comprised of the first quarter of subsidized 3G handsets, thus the bump in GM on the DR/DC on the balance sheet. Notice the non-current GM of 51.9% is 6.5% higher than the 45.3% GM of the current. This results from the non-current bucket comprising of a larger mix of 3G iPhones since much of the legacy (2.5G) iPhones have migrated to the current bucket.
Examining the trend, we can see that GM in the current bucket improves dramatically, at a much faster pace than the non-current bucket. This is due to the mix of new iPhones becoming a larger overall mix in the current bucket, whereas the non-current bucket is already a majority of newer iPhone sales. The overall result is that GM are approaching near 60%, which I estimate iPhone GM is currently. This is evidenced by the rising GM Q/Q, especially in the non-current bucket which is impacted more by current sales.
My bottom-up iPhone gross margin estimate is 58.4% for the assumed mix, with the iPhone 3GS 32GB garnering the highest GM and the iPhone 3GS 16GB carrying the lowest of the 3 models.
The Bottom Line:
Deferred revenue as stated on the balance sheet has been increasing substantially. The gross margin attached to this deferred revenue has also increased significantly. Thus, going forward, Apple will recognize higher iPhone revenue carrying a higher gross margin. As iPhone revenue is a percentage or share of total revenue increases, the impact of the higher iPhone GM on overall GM will intensify. This will assuage margin pressures Apple faces in other areas.
I wrote last year that the iPhone would cause Apple's overall GM to skyrocket, but I also posited another possibility. Apple would use iPhone GM to subsidize price cuts on other products to stimulate demand and ultimately avoiding an adverse impact on overall GM associated with such price reductions. As we just witnessed, Apple cut prices on its Mac line-up, and there hasn't appeared to be any noticeable impact on overall GM. Going forward, Apple is guiding Q4 GM to 34%, suggesting GM in the 36%-38% range, thus there doesn't appear that these price reductions will have a dramatic impact on its overall GM.
Disclosure: Long AAPL