Apple reports record quarter, stocks plummet

Sales of Macs down 18 per cent, iPad sales up nearly 50 per cent, iPhone sales up 30 per cent.

Apple's released its quarterly earnings yesterday, and they weren't great. Although, in Apple's case, "not great" still means that revenue grew 18 per cent year on year to $54.5bn, profits hovered at $13.1bn, and its financial year 2012 is the largest corporate earnings year in history. Twitter loves to talk about first-world problems — this is "biggest-company problems" of the highest order.

Sales of Macs were down 18 per cent, but iPad sales had grown by nearly 50 per cent, and iPhone sales by almost 30 per cent. The iPhone 5 was the best-selling smartphone worldwide, and the astronomical mark-up on it — it generates a 55 per cent profit margin for the company — means that it will be jealously guarding that market for some time.

Still, the narrative is that Apple's had a bad quarter (because they really ought to own a small country by now, and their failure not to do so is frankly embarrassing), and so in after-hours trading, stocks were down 10 per cent.

The diagnosis seems to be that a hefty chunk of the decoupling of revenue and growth was down to the much-reduced profit margins of the iPad Mini. Apple's profit from sales of the 7 inch iPad is much lower than it gets from sales of the full-size one (although that hasn't stopped people arguing that it's making a mistake to charge so much for it, or not to put a vastly expensive retina display on it), so to the extent that its growth is because of entering that new market, its profit share will fall.

Worse for the company is that there is some evidence the mini is cannibalising sales of the full-size iPad. Certainly, respected bloggers like Marco Arment and John Gruber report preferring their minis to their old iPads, and they would seem to be the target market for the full-power device.

But if its problems stem from a growing presence in low-margin markets, then it's rather odd that the proposed solutions are… growing their presence in low-margin markets. Apple regularly comes under pressure for their low and declining share of the smartphone market — currently at around 20 per cent — with the implication that its strategy of chasing profit over raw sales is wrong. Reports that the company is attempting to build a low-price iPhone which would debut in late 2013 suggest that the company is taking the recommendation to heart.

But it seems that if it does bring out a successful low-margin entry level device, it will be slammed for declining profit; if it doesn't, it will be slammed for declining market share. Meanwhile, whatever the company does, it will be raking money in hand-over-fist. Maybe the problem lies with the people doing the slamming?

Photograph: Getty Images

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

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When Theresa May speaks, why don’t we listen?

Not many Prime Ministers have to repeat themselves three times. 

Theresa May is the candidate of Brexit and market panic. She ascended to the highest office because, in the fraught weeks after Britain’s vote to leave the European Union, she represented a safe haven for nervous Conservative MPs, the dependable family mutual that remained open while all along the Conservative high street, her rivals were shutting up shop.

Her popularity, as revealed in high poll ratings outside Westminster, too, owes itself to the perception that she is a serious politician in serious times, happily installed atop the ship of state to guide it through the rocky waters of Brexit negotiations.

May’s premiership has been defined by market panics of a different kind, however. The first is in the currency markets, where sterling takes a tumble whenever she pronounces on Britain’s future relationship with the European Union, falling both after her conference speech on 2 October and after her start-of-the-year interview with Sophy Ridge on 8 January. The second is in the opinion pages, where May’s stock oscillates wildly from bullish to bearish.

In the first months of May’s government, she was hailed as an Anglo-Saxon counterpart to Angela Merkel: a solid centre-right Christian democrat who would usher in a decade of conservative hegemony. More recently, she has been compared to Gordon Brown because of her perceived indecisiveness and repeatedly accused of failing to spell out what, exactly, her government’s Brexit objectives are.

In a symbol of the splits on the right between the Brexiteers and Remainers, the Economist, that bible of free-market globalisation and usually a reliable tastemaker as far as Westminster groupthink is concerned, began 2017 by dubbing the Prime Minister “Theresa Maybe”. Though May’s Downing Street is less concerned with the minutiae of what goes on in the public press than David Cameron’s, the contention that she is indecisive was a source of frustration.

There is an element of truth in the claim that May still views the world through a “Home Office lens”. One senior minister complains that Downing Street considers the Ministry of Justice as a “rogue outpost” of May’s old stomping ground, rather than a fully fledged department with its own interests and perspectives.

Yet even the most authoritarian of home secretaries would struggle to secure a conviction against May on the charge of opacity as far as her Brexit approach is concerned. She has hit the same grace notes with the reliability of a professional musician: Brexit means freedom from the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice and control over Britain’s borders, two objectives that can only be achieved as a result of Britain’s exit not only from the EU but also the single market. This was confirmed on 17 January in the Prime Minister’s Lancaster House speech in London.

David Cameron used to say that he would never have “a people”. Certainly, there is no Cameroon tendency in the country at large to match the generation of council house residents that became homeowners and lifelong Conservatives because of Margaret Thatcher and Right to Buy. However, there is, unquestionably, a Cameroon people or faction to be found at almost every rung of London’s financial services sector or at editorial meetings of the Economist, though it as at the Times and the Sun where the treatment of May is at its most noticably rougher than in the Cameron era. 

Michael Gove, her old rival, is not only employed as a columnist by the Times; he enjoys the confidence and admiration of Rupert Murdoch. That the Times secured the first British interview with Donald Trump was a coup for Murdoch, an old associate of the president-elect, and for Gove, who conducted it. It left May in the unlovely position of making history as the first prime minister to be scooped to a first meeting with a new American president by a sitting MP in modern times. It also attested to a source of frustration among May’s allies that she is, for all her undoubted popularity, still ignored or doubted by much of the right-wing establishment.

That condescension partly explains why her words are often listened to briefly, acted on hastily and swiftly forgotten, hence the pound’s cycle of falling when she makes an intervention on Brexit and rising shortly thereafter. The Lancaster House speech was designed to break this pattern. Downing Street briefed the most potent paragraphs at the weekend so that the markets could absorb what she would say before she said it.

As a result, the pound rallied as May delivered her speech, which contained a commitment to a transitional deal that would come into effect after Britain has left the EU. Some financiers believe this arrangement could become permanent, which once again demonstrates how much they underestimate May’s ability to enforce her will.

Being underestimated by Cameron’s people, in Westminster and the City, has the unintended effect of shoring up Theresa May’s position. A prolonged and sustained bout of panic would increase the pressure for a soft landing, but its absence makes it harder for Labour to oppose her effectively, although it has largely acquiesced to the Tory plan for Brexit, at least as far as membership of the single market is concerned. 

Yet for all the plaudits that the Prime Minister’s Lancaster House speech attracted, for all her undoubted popularity in the country, she is in the anomalous position of being a Conservative Prime Minister who has priorities on the European stage other than the preservation of the City of London and to whom Rupert Murdoch is not a natural ally.

As such, she may find that her deadlier enemies come from the right.

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.