Apple Bears May Need a New Thesis
Suddenly there's a hole in the Apple bear thesis so big you can drive a truck (full of iPhone 5s) through it.
One, it makes Apple bulls like Piper Jaffray's Gene Munster, who projects that Apple will sell 4 to 5 million iPhones in China in the quarter, look smarter than the bears. And two, combined with the news Friday that Walmart is selling the iPhone 5 in the U.S. for $70 off, it strongly suggests that Tim Cook has worked the kinks out of his supply chain and is managing to deliver a flood of iPhone 5s in a crucial quarter.
The crush of pessimistic Apple chatter has been so overwhelming recently that it's hard to remember what the conventional wisdom was three months ago, before Apple's perceived iPhone sales miss, underwhelming quarter, and so on. A refresher: Many thoughtful Apple watchers were saying that the holiday quarter was mostly about supply. If Apple could figure out how to deliver enough iPhones and iPads during the quarter, beautiful things could happen with Apple's numbers.
After the quarterly report and Apple's unusually stingy earnings per share (EPS) guidance, the script shifted. More people began arguing that Apple's iPad mini wouldn't sell well against lower priced competitors like the Kindle Fire HD and Nexus 7. Others argued that the iPad mini would sell TOO well, and cannibalize the full-size iPad. And yet more began arguing more loudly that iPhone margins would begin to mark an inevitable decline because Samsung phones had gotten good enough to challenge Apple's leadership and carriers wouldn't feel the need to pay up, and the maps on iOS didn't stack up to Android.
And now we have these China numbers.
The iPhone's China sales are staggeringly important. At the rate Apple has been growing in China, Asia Pacific is likely to be its biggest market (topping the Americas) in the next couple years.
If the iPhone 5 can still pull a big launch in China, it suggests that Apple's brand still has plenty of cachet there. If Apple's brand still has cachet, iPad sales probably won't be bad, either. Combine that with what we know of Apple CEO Tim Cook, and the cautious tone he struck less than two months ago about his ability to ramp up iPhone 5 supply quickly, and the latest iPhone numbers look significant.
Significant enough that, with a few extra iPhone sales,favorable mix toward higher-end iPads and the help of a few flying reindeer, it seems possible that Apple might deliver a bit of upside for Christmas.
—By CNBC's Jon Fortt; Follow him on Twitter: @jonfortt