I’ve been a skeptic about Apple Inc. (NASDAQ:AAPL) for some time. While Apple stock looks cheap, I’ve argued that it should look cheap. Growth concerns across the board mean that AAPL earnings — and, thus, AAPL stock — shouldn’t necessarily get a high valuation.
But I admit that Apple earnings on Tuesday were quite impressive — and answered a number of concerns I’ve cited in the past. The headlines centered on iPhone X shipments, but looking closer, there’s more good news.
In fact, I see at least four positive takeaways from the report that specifically address long-running concerns from AAPL stock bears like myself. And while I’m not ready to turn completely bullish on Apple stock, I do see why the stock has gained 7%+ in the last two sessions. And I can see why bulls might see Apple stock as ready to bust through resistance and, perhaps, become the first company with a $1 trillion market capitalization.
The iPhone/Hardware Problem (or Solution?)
When it comes to Apple stock, it’s still iPhone or bust. The iPhone continues to drive over 60% of revenue, and likely a higher share of profit. And so the concerns heading into the report about weakening iPhone X sales had some basis in reality. Smartphone growth looks sluggish, if not negative; overall, worldwide unit shipments were down 3% in the first quarter.
But Apple, at worst, has fought off those worries for the time being. iPhone unit sales were up 3% year over year. Thanks to higher pricing, revenue rose a sharp 14% from the first quarter of 2017.
This does create a key point for AAPL bulls. Even if unit sales are relatively flat, as long as Apple can keep raising prices and keep taking market share from phones on the Alphabet Inc (NASDAQ:GOOGL, NASDAQ:GOOG) Android OS, revenue can grow. And with Apple stock still at 10-11 times earnings when backing out its cash hoard, revenue growth likely drives upside — and probably enough to get Apple stock to the $1 trillion level.
Strength in China
Adding to that optimism were strong results in China. Revenue in that country actually declined 24% over the past two fiscal years. Trade war concerns added to some of the weakness in AAPL stock this year. An Apple reliant on smartphone sales in Western markets was an Apple not likely to create much, if anything, in the way of profit growth.
But performance has improved notably of late. Sales in China rose 21% YOY, the company’s best performance in ten quarters. On top of an 11% gain in fiscal Q1, Apple seems to be driving momentum. On the Q2 conference call, CEO Tim Cook said the iPhone X was the best-selling phone in that country in the first calendar quarter.
And Cook forecast more improvement in China, while also dismissing some of the trade war concerns. The CEO also cited strength in India. Success in those key two markets could remove some of the iPhone growth concerns — and that in turn should lead Apple stock higher.
The Rest of Apple Did Well
Adding to Apple’s reliance on the iPhone was the fact that revenue outside that key product was almost bizarrely flat, as I pointed out last year. But Apple is starting to drive some growth, with double-digit growth ex-iPhone in fiscal 2017.
That strength continued in Q2. Non-iPhone sales rose nearly 18% YOY. The big driver is the Services segment, for which Cook has targeted $50 billion in revenue. After 31% YOY growth in Q2 (and an impressive 8% jump over Q1), that business is headed for the $40 billion level on a run-rate basis. Apple Music is a real competitor to Spotify Technology SA (NYSE:SPOT) and Pandora Media Inc (NYSE:P). iTunes continues to be a profit center as well.
iPad revenues even rose 6%, as the long decline in that category seems to be ending. From an overall standpoint, Apple still needs the iPhone to drive growth. But at the least, over the past six quarters, the rest of the business is providing a push of its own.
Apple Stock Buybacks and Dividends
Tax reform set up a potential windfall for Apple shareholders, as I wrote back in January. And Apple delivered on that promise this week. The company added $100 billion to its share buyback authorization. And the quarterly dividend was raised 16%; AAPL stock now yields a healthy 1.65%.
Apple can now buy back about 11% of its shares outstanding — and also add some demand to its shares in any sell-offs that might arise as the year rolls on. Through both buybacks and dividends, Apple shareholders will have a lot of cash coming their way over the next couple of quarters.
Is AAPL Stock a Buy?
As bearish as I’ve been on AAPL, I’ll admit that the quarter shows several reasons for enthusiasm. But whether it’s stubbornness or caution, I’m not quite ready to turn bullish.
I’d still like to see more in terms of iPhone X results as the year goes on. The numbers in China are benefiting from easy comparisons; the performance in that country, so far, is just a reversion to the mean, not necessarily a sign of real growth.
But the case for AAPL to clear $200 a share and $1 trillion in market cap looks stronger now than it has in a while. And even this bear has to admit that Apple just had a very strong quarter.
As of this writing, Vince Martin has no positions in any securities mentioned.