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Apple's cut in revenue outlook triggers slump for suppliers

Customers browse inside an Apple store in Hong Kong on Jan 3. Apple is reporting a holiday quarter slowdown for the first time since Tim Cook became CEO in 2011.

San Francisco

APPLE Inc cut its revenue outlook for the first time in almost two decades citing weaker demand in China, triggering a slump for Asian suppliers and a wave of lower price targets on Wall Street.

Chief executive officer Tim Cook said sales will be about US$84 billion in the quarter ended Dec 29, down from earlier estimates of US$89 billion to US$93 billion. Apple posted sales of US$88.3 billion in the fiscal first quarter a year earlier, so the new forecast would mean Apple is reporting a holiday quarter slowdown for the first time since Mr Cook became CEO in 2011.

Shares of Apple were down 7.8 per cent in pre-market trading in New York on Thursday.

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The announcement, made in a letter from Mr Cook to investors, comes after weeks of signals from inside Apple and its supply chain indicating the Cupertino, California-based company is struggling to sell the latest iPhones released in September. The flagship product earns Apple about two-thirds of its revenue, and allows the company to generate more money from attached products like Apple Watches, AirPods, and services like Apple Music.

"While we anticipated some challenges in key emerging markets, we did not foresee the magnitude of the economic deceleration, particularly in Greater China," Mr Cook wrote.

Greater China, a region that includes the mainland, Hong Kong and Taiwan, accounted for most of the revenue shortfall, but iPhone upgrades also weren't as strong as the company anticipated in some developed markets, he said.

"The fact that they missed that wasn't the shock," said Daniel Ives, an analyst at Wedbush Securities. "It was the degree and how confined it was to China. The fact that China basically fell off a cliff was a jaw dropper, and combined with the lack of metrics, it makes investors feel like they're walking blindfolded in the dark."

Suppliers in Europe and Asia slumped on the news. AMS AG, which produces optical sensors for mobile phones, fell as much as 19.4 per cent in Zurich, and Dialog Semiconductor, which makes power-management components, fell as much as 8.5 per cent in Frankfurt.

SK Hynix Inc, a producer of memory for Apple, dropped 4.8 per cent in Seoul while Samsung Electronics, which makes chips and displays, fell 3 per cent. IPhone assembler Hon Hai Precision Industry lost 1.7 per cent and rival Pegatron Corp. slipped 1.2 per cent. Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing fell 1.8 per cent.

Several key Apple suppliers overseas had cut their revenue estimates during the past few months, suggesting something was amiss. In November, the company said it would stop reporting unit sales of iPhones, iPads and Macs beginning in fiscal 2019, sparking concern that Apple wanted to avoid disclosing weak growth numbers.

Apple's stock had fallen 32 per cent from an October peak to its close of US$157.92 on Wednesday amid growing concerns about the iPhone.

In December, Bloomberg News reported the company was facing a "fire drill" to boost iPhone sales. That led Apple to aggressively market the iPhone XR on its website for US$449, about US$300 less than its official sticker price. The deal required customers to trade in an iPhone 7 Plus, a high-end handset from two years earlier.

At least four Wall Street firms, including BITG and RBC, lowered their share price forecasts by more than 15 per cent after Mr Cook's letter, in which he said the new iPhone models were released earlier than the flagship iPhone X last year, which created a difficult year-over-year comparison. The iPhone X launched in November 2017, while the iPhone XS and XS Max were released in September. Mr Cook also noted supply constraints to new models of the Apple Watch, iPad Pro and AirPods. "IPhone upgrades also were not as strong as we thought they would be," he said, meaning the sales of new models to current customers replacing their old phones.

The CEO attributed much of the company's "shortfall" in its outlook to struggles in China that he pinned on the economy and "rising trade tensions" with the US. "As the climate of mounting uncertainty weighed on financial markets, the effects appeared to reach consumers as well, with traffic to our retail stores and our channel partners in China declining as the quarter progressed."

While iPhone revenue accounted for the forecast cut, Apple's other product categories, including the iPad and services, grew a combined 19 percent year-over-year, he said. Services generated US$10.8 billion in revenue for the quarter - a 27 per cent increase from a year earlier.

Apple's decision to cut its sales outlook, "isn't a huge shock at this point," said Shannon Cross of Cross Research. "It will be interesting to see how Apple shares react if there's a China trade agreement." BLOOMBERG

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