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Margin call update: About those changes in service policies

In the March quarter, our gross margin was 37.5%. It was at the low end of our range. We had a few items that on balance resulted in us reporting at the low end. They included mix, in particular, selling more iPads than we had planned, including getting iPad mini into our four- to six-week channel inventory range, some changes in our service policies that required us to make provisions for prior quarter sales, and we had some unfavorable adjustments.

– Peter Oppenheimer, Apple CFO, FQ2 2013 Earnings Conference Call

[my emphasis]

Thanks to Philip Elmer DeWitt for bringing this quote to my attention in the comments to Margin Call 2.

I was curious about the “changes in service policies” and what that might have meant, especially since they seem to have been retroactive (provisions for prior quarter sales).

The 10Q offers more details:

Accruals for product warranty for the three months ended March 30, 2013 include $414 million associated with product sales in prior fiscal periods reflecting the impact of changes to certain of the Company’s service policies and other estimated warranty costs. Of this amount, $224 million is associated with product sales in the first quarter of 2013, and the remainder is associated with product sales in 2012.

– Apple 10Q, Note 6, Page 17, second paragraph.

These service policy changes were made around April 1st and were in response to editorials in the People’s Daily, the official paper of the Chinese Communist Party. Though seen as a PR issue, their impact goes beyond the company’s image. Changes in warranty policy implies setting aside some of the revenues as an expense, increasing the cost of sales and reducing margins.

The 10Q says that $190 million of the additional warranty set-aside was for prior quarters and that $224 million was for the March quarter.

If we were to subtract the $190 million from the cost of sales the gross margin would increase from 37.50% to 37.93% and if we subtract the full $414 million the gross margin would increase to 38.44%.

The calculations are shown in the following table:

Sales Cost of Sales Gross margin
Q1 $43,603 $27,254 37.50%
Q1 adjusted for change in service policies in 2012 $43,603 $27,064 37.93%
Q1 adjusted for change in service policies in 2012 and 2013 $43,603 $26,840 38.44%

 

If we read 2012 and 2013 as meaning fiscal years then the entire $414 amount is for prior periods (i.e. not for the current quarter) and the gross margin for Q1, excluding one-time items, would be nearly 1 percentage point higher than reported.

The effect of the change in policy would have been very difficult to anticipate when estimating the gross margin, even for Apple’s own team three months ago.

It’s also important to note that this does not say much about the supposed effect of competitive pressures on Apple’s margins. 38.44% gross margin is not as good as last year’s, but they’re pretty good.