Forecasting The Past

The last quarter of 2020 was a remarkable quarter for Apple. Every line in the income statement increased by double digits. Net sales up 21%, iPhone sales up 17%, Mac sales up 21%, iPad up 41%, Services up 24% and Earnings Per Share up 30%. This had not happened in over 10 years. The last time being the first quarter of 2010.

Take a look at the table below which color-codes each line based on the rate of growth. The darker the green the faster the growth (blue being above 100%).

A shockingly good performance is made all the more remarkable by its happening in a time of uncertainty. The company has refused (rightly) to issue guidance as long as a pandemic is raging world-wide. The disruptions in supply chains, demand and changes in behaviors due to new limitations on mobility and interactions between people are unprecedented and consequences are still to be estimated.

The growth surely, you say, is precisely because of this disruption. The “work and study from home” and lockdowns have forced people to buy more technology. Phones, Laptops, tablets are not just tools but lifelines for a society denied other forms of contact.

But this was not at all obvious at the beginning of the crisis. The months leading to pandemic caused the share prices of most equities to fall, and tech was not immune. Apple’s shares fell in March 2020 to $57/share. I heard comments suggesting that Apple would collapse as a business with unemployment reaching 25% and nobody willing to pay for luxuries like iPhones.

The crisis has proven that technology is not a luxury but a necessity, and technology that works better is far more valuable than technology that works barely. Spending on better machines has increased.

Some of that is of course helped by stimulus programs but growth was not only in countries which gave out cash. The growth for Apple was in all regions of the world, breaking new records even in poorer countries.

Far more likely, the economic fuel for Apple’s growth came from disposable income being unspent on other high-ticket items like dining, vacations and entertainment. Much cash sloshing around the economy surely ended up in an Apple cash register.

But this is all old news. The question into 2021 is what will this year look like. The first quarter already ended and the data is dribbling in: Apple has 1 billion customers, 88% of US teens have an iPhone, 70% have AirPods, China is growing at crazy rates, Foxconn reporting 40% growth, production of next generation iPhone chips starting early (May), etc.

There does not seem to be a let-up in growth, despite some component shortages postponing some non-iPhone product introductions. Apple’s cautious comments 3 months ago are probably moot now.

We are providing some directional insights assuming that COVID-related impacts of our business do not worsen from our current assumptions for the quarter. For total company revenue, we believe growth will accelerate on a year-over-year basis and in aggregate, follow typical seasonality on a sequential basis.

At the product category level, keep in mind two items: First, during the March quarter last year, we saw elevated activity in our digital services as lockdowns occurred around the world, so our services business faces a tougher year-over-year comparison; second, we believe the year-over-year growth in the Wearables, Home and Accessories category will decelerate compared to Q1.

As you know, we were chasing demand on AirPods last year as we expanded channel inventory from Q1 to Q2. This year, we plan to decrease AirPods channel inventory as is typical after the holiday quarter. We expect gross margin to be similar to the December quarter.

We expect opex to be between $10.7 billion and $10.9 billion. We expect OI&E to be up around $50 million and our tax rate to be around 17%.

Luca Maestri

Given this, I am tentatively projecting top line growth of 15% (vs. 1% a year ago and 21% last quarter) and EPS growth of 11% (vs. 3.8% year ago and 25.6% last quarter.) A goldilocks quarter.

More details will be forthcoming.