Why Goldman Sachs Lowered Expectations on Apple

If Apple Inc. (NASDAQ: AAPL) is the biggest and greatest of all public companies, and if Goldman Sachs Group Inc. (NYSE: GS) is the biggest and greatest investment banking and financial firm, what happens when the two companies are pitted against each other? And what about when you throw in Warren Buffett and Berkshire Hathaway Inc. (NYSE: BRK-A) into the mix?

Investors found themselves on the other end of a research call after Goldman Sachs lowered its expectations and upside projections on Apple. Thursday’s research downgrade acted to make a further price recovery that much more difficult for all the great Apple bulls and fanboys alike.

The research team at Goldman Sachs actually did maintain their Buy rating in the call. What hurts here though, a trend that had been mirrored elsewhere in recent weeks, was that the firm lowered its price target, down to $124 from its prior $136 price target.

What may matter the most is that this takes Goldman Sachs from being almost 10% higher than the pack to right in line with the pack. Apple’s consensus analyst price target from Thomson First Call has now fallen to $124.30.

While some analyst calls have cited Apple-specific issues, the Goldman Sachs target downgrade mentions lower growth expectations for the smartphone industry.

As a reminder, the research outfit IDC lowered its global smartphone shipment expectations just a day earlier. IDC sees a 3.1% growth rate to 1.48 billion units, versus a prior growth of more than 5% to 1.5 billion units. More specifically, IDC lowered iPhone shipment expectations for 2016 to 227 million units in 2016 from 232 million in 2015. IDC did project that Apple could return to iPhone growth in 2017 when it makes a major upgrade.

Goldman Sachs lowered its earnings per share (EPS) forecast for its fiscal year 2016, but the cut was only to $8.39 per share from $8.40. The real cuts were made to 2017 and 2018 EPS estimates, which were lowered by 8% in 2017 and lowered by 11% in 2018.

The team is now calling for 211 million iPhone units in fiscal year 2016, versus a prior 212 million iPhone units. The firm sees lower overall smartphone market growth, and the shift toward emerging markets is driving down the average selling prices per phone. Goldman Sachs is still modeling in upside to consensus estimates.

The Thomson/First Call consensus forecast for fiscal 2016 is $8.28 EPS. A look at the Thomson Reuters consensus estimates showed earnings at $9.11 per share for 2017 and $9.79 for 2018.

Apple shares were last seen down 0.7% at $97.75 in late-morning trading on Thursday, in a 52-week trading range of $89.74 to $132.97. Apple shares were down close to 7% year to date, but they were up 10% at Wednesday’s closing price, when compared to the 52-week low seen a month ago.

As a reminder, Warren Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway recently was shown to have taken a stake in Apple. This was a highly unusual and very unexpected stake from Team Buffett, but it was immediately revealed that one of the two portfolio managers bought the stock, rather than the Oracle of Omaha pulling the trigger.

Apple shares did rally since the Buffett stake was disclosed. The 9,811,747 share stake is large by most standards, after all most of can’t pay $1 billion to buy stock. Still, in Apple terms it is so small that it is not even a 1% stake. In fact, JPMorgan’s investment management arm owns over 54.5 million shares, and that is only a 1.0% stake of Apple’s outstanding shares.

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