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Is Apple’s Growth Story Over?

The Motley Fool logo The Motley Fool 01-02-2016 Jamal Carnette

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Don't say you weren't warned. For months, analysts have predicted that Apple's (NASDAQ: AAPL) top-line growth rate was destined to shrink. You can't blame the rational investor for paying the naysayers no attention, though, as it seems there's a cottage industry of analysts churning out bearish articles regarding Apple daily. Meanwhile, the company's stock has provided an 800% boost over the past 10 years, versus the 100% return of the greater Nasdaq.

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Over that period, Apple's become a vastly different company. For example, in 2006 the leading product was Apple's iPod, with $7.7 billion in sales and $19.3 billion in total revenue. For comparison, in the recently completed first quarter alone, Apple reported $75.8 billion in revenue. Introduced in 2007, Apple's top product, the iPhone, provided 68% of returns as the product continued to smash sales records. Here's a breakdown of Apple's iPhone revenue versus the rest of the company:

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Source: Apple's quarterly earnings statements.

Even Apple understood that its reliance on iPhone growth presented new risks to the company. Last year the company updated its risk-disclosure section to address the risk of reliance on a single product, and its warning appeared to come to fruition this quarter, with the company reporting anemic 2% year-on-year growth. But what if I told you the quarter wasn't as bad as the naysayers say?

Geographical woes were exacerbated by currency headwinds, but China is slowing

For the past year, Apple's geographical growth has mostly been from China. For the past three quarters of fiscal 2015, Apple's year-on-year growth rate in the country was approaching 100%, as a combination of easy comparables amid tremendous demand for the prior-gen iPhone 6 and iPhone 6 Plus has led to enviable revenue growth rates. China's torrid growth essentially obscured the fact that the rest of the company was growing at a much less torrid pace. Here's a visual look at the divergence on growth:

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Source: Apple's quarterly statements.

The last quarter wasn't as bad as it initially appears, however. The dollar considerably strengthened during the period, hurting Apple upon currency conversion. In constant-currency terms, Apple did grow non-China revenue 7.5% on a year-on-year basis, beating last quarter's currency-affected 7.3%. The currency headwinds even affected China's results -- albeit to a lesser extent, as the country heavily controls its currency -- shaving off 3 percentage points from Apple's performance.

Perhaps the iPhone 6s is just not a compelling product

By all accounts, the new iPhone 6s and iPhone 6s Plus are high-quality smartphones, but are they demand-changing products? Apple generally releases iPhones in a predictable two-year cycle: A number change generally consists of a form-factor change, and the last two (the iPhone 5 and iPhone 6) have resulted in larger phones, while in the off year, Apple generally refreshes the internals and adds a user-experience feature -- the iPhone 5s added Touch ID.

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This year, that feature was 3D Touch, a new pressure-sensitive interface that introduced Pop and Peek gestures. While it's an interesting feature, it never seemed as if this was upgrade-forcing technology. In addition, there has been slow migration among third-party app developers to use the feature on their apps. The quality of off-year products is more important than in years past because every telco save AT&T dropped the standard two-year contact by fiscal quarter's end.

Instead of a dependable two-year refresh cycle initiated by a new carrier contract, the purchasing decision firmly rests with the customer's desire. I think if Apple brings a highly desirable iPhone 7 to market this year, top-line growth (in excess of the 2% the company achieved this quarter) will follow.

In the end, I do think Apple's growth rate will slow, but I think the combination of an off-year model with an underwhelming user-experience feature, tough year-on-year comparables from China, and foreign currency effects converged to make Apple's first quarter look much worse than it actually was. 

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