Apple closed at $500.00 on the nose yesterday. An eerie close to an odd week for Apple.
It all started Sunday night when the Wall Street Journal and Nikkei simultaneously reported Apple cut its March quarter order for iPhone screens in half.
The Journal blamed "weak demand." The stock subsequently fell, and even closed under $500 one day this week.
Those reports don't entirely make sense. There's simply no way Apple misjudged demand by that much. It may have had better screen yields, meaning it expected 30% of screens manufactured to be screwed up, but in reality on 10% were screwed up. Or it could be switching to a new screen maker. Or the reports are wrong.
Whatever the case may be, the stock was hit, leading many Apple bloggers to say the Journal was being played by stock manipulators.
In the very short term, like a day or two, it is possible to jerk a stock around. But, if you step back and look at Apple's stock over the last three months, it is down 30% from its peak.
A sustained $200 decline is much less likely to be caused by stock manipulation. It is more likely related to fundamental concerns about Apple's future by investors.
And nowhere are these concerns, and thus the explanation for the stock drop, more clearly articulated than in this chart from FactSet. (More after the chart.)
As you can see, analysts started cutting their EPS estimates for the holiday quarter in the middle of October.
Right now, they are projecting a 3 percent drop in EPS on a year over year basis. In fairness to Apple, year over year comparisons aren't perfect because last year's fourth quarter had an extra week in it, and Apple sold its new iPhone for the entire holiday quarter. This year, the iPhone 5 was on sale for a part of the September quarter. That, though, is offset by Apple selling the iPhone 5 in China earlier this year.
EPS cuts are being driven by a belief that the iPhone 5 is going to be less profitable than the iPhone 4S. A mix to iPad Minis, which are less profitable than big iPads, and the manufacturing of all new iMacs, which will be less profitable initially than older iMacs.
Regardless of how you cut it up, a drop in EPS, or flat EPS, or even modest growth during the holiday quarter is going to be a huge disappointment. Apple had been growing EPS consistently above 40% before the March 2012 quarter. The drop in EPS growth is giving investors a scare.
You could look at that FactSet chart and notice that the stock price lagged the EPS cuts. That's true. But it some times takes the market a while to believe what the analysts are saying. And as more and more analysts cut their estimates, the stock's fall just continued.
And what's not reflected in the FactSet chart is analyst cuts for the full fiscal year of 2013. As those cuts started rolling in during December, the stock continued to fall.
The analysts could be totally wrong on Apple. It wouldn't be the first time. But it is their concern about Apple's ability to grow its bottom line that is driving a lot of the decline in Apple's stock.
The good news for Apple's true believers is that it reports earnings next week. If it crushes analyst estimates and provides strong guidance, the stock could come back to life.
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