U.S. Markets closed

Apple investors focus on iPhone sales for the holiday quarter

Employees work at the SoHo Apple Store in New York, October 27, 2015. REUTERS/Brendan McDermid

By Julia Love and Devika Krishna Kumar

SAN FRANCISCO (Reuters) - Apple Inc (AAPL.O) painted a rosy picture for its new iPhones as it reported quarterly results on Tuesday, but investors were more focused on the company's next test: topping last year's record holiday sales.

Shares of the world's most profitable company initially rose 3 percent in extended trade after Apple beat Wall Street's sales and profit forecasts, but the gains largely evaporated later.

In the world's most important market for smartphones, Apple's sales in Greater China in its fourth fiscal quarter nearly doubled from a year ago to $12.52 billion, accounting for nearly a quarter of its total revenue.

"We continue to have wonderful success there," Apple's chief financial officer, Luca Maestri, told Reuters, adding that Apple now has 25 stores in China and is opening a new one roughly every month.

But China sales dipped from the fiscal third quarter, when Apple notched $13.2 billion in revenue there. The sequential decline is important as many analysts believe China is poised to replace the United States as Apple's biggest market.

Analyst Ben Bajarin of Creative Strategies said as the Chinese market matures, it is beginning to show spikes around the holidays and slumps before the release of a new phone, as in the U.S. market. "The seasonality in China is really a new wrinkle," he said.

Apple, the world's largest company by market value, said it sold about 48.05 million iPhones worldwide in its fiscal fourth quarter ended Sept. 26, slightly below analysts' average forecast of 48.72 million, according to a poll by Fortune magazine.

For the current quarter, which will include a full three months of sales of the new iPhone 6s and 6s Plus models, Apple forecast revenue between $75.5 billion and $77.5 billion. The company's generally conservative forecast was in line with Wall Street's average estimate of $77.17 billion, according to Thomson Reuters I/B/E/S.

"The street was fearing soft guidance and instead got a good December outlook," said Daniel Ives, an analyst at FBR Capital Markets.

Morningstar analyst Brian Colello said the forecast was slightly below expectations but investors were pricing in a worse outcome, which was why the stock initially rose after hours.

Boosted by a new pink or 'rose gold' color option, Apple posted record sales of its latest iPhones in the first weekend that they hit stores in late September. The fiscal fourth quarter included only two days of sales of the new iPhones.

The release of the iPhone 6 set off a sales frenzy last year, propelling Apple to the most profitable quarter ever for a U.S. company.

Analyst Shannon Cross of Cross Research said Apple's guidance for the current quarter suggested the company can top its success last year. "It suggests that they are definitely up to the task," she said.

But some analysts expressed concerns.

"I would say I am a little skeptical or wary about how much more market share they can gain in (emerging) markets," said Tuong Nguyen, a principal analyst at Gartner, citing concerns about whether consumers in those markets can buy costly phones.

    Apple's net income rose to $11.12 billion, or $1.96 per share, in the fourth quarter, up from $8.47 billion, or $1.42 per share, a year earlier.

Net sales rose about 22 percent to $51.50 billion.

Analysts on average had expected a profit of $1.88 per share and revenue of $51.11 billion.

Apple's shares, which fell steeply in mid-August as concerns about the company's business in China hit fever pitch, were trading at $114.80 after the bell, after closing at $114.55 in regular Nasdaq trade.

(Reporting by Julia Love in San Francisco and Devika Krishna Kumar in Bengaluru; Editing by Kirti Pandey, Bill Rigby and Leslie Adler)