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Apple’s Falling IPhone Sales Not a Problem as Margins, Buybacks Grow

A 10% decline in iPhone sales sounds like a problem for Apple, considering the company counts on the devices for half its revenue.

But investors didn’t seem to mind on Thursday, when Apple revealed the year-over-year drop in its fiscal second-quarter earnings report. The stock rose more than 6% after the market close, a rally that would be the steepest since November 2022 should it continue into regular trading on Friday.

Instead of glaring too much at iPhone revenue, Wall Street chose to focus on the positive. Apple’s gross margin expanded to 46.6%, continuing an upward trajectory that reflects the company’s growing services business, which brings with it stout profits.

Apple also signaled overall revenue growth in the current quarter will be in the low-single digits, following a 4% decline in the second period. Analysts were looking for third-quarter growth of 1.3%, according to LSEG.

Deepwater Asset Management’s Gene Munster described the guidance as a “relief” given the recent trajectory of the business.

“I was expecting this was going to be flat, some investors were saying it was going to be down a few percent in June,” Munster told CNBC’s “Fast Money” after the report. “I think that was a big part of this move higher.”

But perhaps the biggest catalyst for the pop was Apple’s announcement that it had approved $110 billion of share buybacks, the most ever for a public company. For the past three years, Apple has approved $90 billion in annual repurchases.

The after-hours jump shows how much investors are valuing Apple’s massive cash flow and the company’s willingness to return more of it to shareholders. It’s a shift in the way Apple has been viewed by Wall Street over the years, away from a hits-driven gadgets business and toward a financial powerhouse.

“Our free cash flow generation has been very strong over the years, particularly the last few years,” Apple CFO Luca Maestri said on the earnings call.

Apple revealed earlier this year that it has 2.2 billion active devices, illustrating the mammoth reach of its customer base as the company rolls out new subscription services. Despite the 4% drop in revenue, Apple still recorded nearly $24 billion in profit, a slip of just over 2% from a year earlier.

Apple said iPhone sales suffered from a difficult comparison to last year, when sales were elevated after previous shortages. Still, investors are looking for future iPhone growth, and many analysts say a potential iPhone with AI features could do the trick and help the company snag customers from Android. Annual iPhone revenue peaked in Apple’s fiscal 2022.

While Apple provided some guidance for total revenue, it avoided offering any sort of forecast for iPhone sales.

That’s a change, even for a company that’s been giving less forward guidance since the pandemic. Maestri typically provides trends on iPhone sales, and had for the past four quarters.

There’s no guarantee investors will be able to continue counting on increased buybacks from a company that’s been more aggressive in that department than any other. Apple says it’s trying to draw down its huge cash pile, which stood at $162 billion at the end of the quarter. When its debt is roughly equal to its cash balance — meaning the company is net cash neutral — Apple will evaluate what to do next, executives said on Thursday.

As of the end of 2023, Apple had spent $658 billion on buybacks over the past 10 years, far ahead of second-place Microsoft, according to S&P Dow Jones Indices.

“For the last couple of years we were doing $90 billion and now we’re doing $110 billion,” Maestri said on the call.

In terms of what happens when Apple gets to net cash neutral, Maestri said, “let’s get there first. It’s going to take a while still.”

“And then when we are there,” he said, “we’re going to reassess and see what is the optimum capital structure for the company at that point in time.”

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