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Goldman Sachs underscored its lukewarm thesis on Apple and said it believes the company will ship fewer iPhones in late 2019 than the 67 million the rest of Wall Street expects.
Analyst Rod Hall reiterated his neutral rating Tuesday, telling clients that it's increasingly likely that Apple falls short of unit sales and average selling price estimates later this year.
"We believe consensus is assuming a steep recovery in China, with little change in demand trajectory for other [geographies]," Hall told clients in a note. "We note that iPhone shipments in the U.S. and Japan cycled up in CY18 [calendar year 2018], with U.S. shipments growing 8% year over year in CY18."
"A better consumer environment for the most part of 2018 combined with compelling products later in the year helped drive iPhone growth in these regions," he added. "For CY19, however, we note that U.S. consumer sentiment is down year over year and an end to subsidies in Japan could create volatility."
Apple shares were slightly higher in premarket trading Wednesday. The equity is up more than 27% over the last 12 months to $207.48 a share through Tuesday.
Goldman Sachs increased its price target on Apple to $182 on Wednesday, which still represents a 12% decline from here.
Apple has in recent years incorporated more luxurious features in its phone production, hoping to combat a decelerating replacement cycle with a higher average selling price (ASP). New generations include facial recognition and wireless charging, more storage capacity and larger screens.
The tactic has had mixed success across the globe. iPhone shipments in France, the United Kingdom and Spain declined 12%, 11% and 3%, respectively, in 2018 despite the deluxe offerings. Units fell 23% year over year in China over the same period, including a 44% year-over-year decline in the fourth quarter, Goldman's Hall added.
"It is too early to assume a recovery on units in China to pre-2018 levels given increasing local brand traction and ongoing consumer weakness that may suggest a "new normal" level of demand for the country," Hall wrote.
The analyst estimates 61 million iPhone sales in the December 2019 quarter, 8% below FactSet consensus. His average selling price estimate for fourth-quarter 2019 is $806, or 4% above consensus.