Apple Inc. (NASDAQ: AAPL) has held the public company market cap crown for years, driven by wave upon wave of growing sales of its iPhones. Wall Street is worried about growth of the iPhone X, and with that the future of Apple’s earnings. The resulting sell-off in Apple’s shares has dropped its market cap to the point at which it is barely above that of Alphabet Inc. (NASDAQ: GOOGL), parent of Google and YouTube.
Apple’s shares are down 4% in just five trading days to $167. The shares have an all-time high of $180. The drop has taken Apple’s market cap to $849 billion. Alphabet’s is $814 billion.
Apple faces three short-term challenges. The first is a cut of iPhone X production. Rumors are that the number could drop to 20 million units in the first quarter from an initial plan of 40 million. Many analysts who have charted the path of Apple’s shares higher rely on what they call a “super cycle,” which is an ongoing loop of consumers replacing old iPhones with new ones at a pace that drives new iPhone sales higher and higher. The rumored cut indicates that a “super cycle” may not occur, at least early this year.
Second, both the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) and U.S. Department of Justice have begun investigations into why Apple has designed software to slow operation of some of its older phones, according to The Wall Street Journal. Among other issues is whether Apple should have told investors about the problem once it was discovered. Apple told customers about the trouble and offered discounts on iPhone batteries. Both federal agencies may find the fix was inadequate, particularly in terms of timing. The investigations could cost Apple money. More importantly, they could undermine Apple’s brand.
Finally, Apple is about to announce earnings. Apple’s quarterly sales are expected to reach an all-time high of $80 billion. iPhone sales should be a record as well. However, the main worry about the earnings announcement is that its forecast for the next quarter could be lighter than expected. Apple’s shares only need to sell down a few percentage points for its market cap to drop below Alphabet’s.
Even if Alphabet passes Apple in market cap, it would need to beat earnings estimates when it posts it numbers. Investors will be watching for the number of clicks on Google ads and the price Google gets per click. Revenue from its other divisions, particularly YouTube, may be little more than a rounding error.
Apple’s market cap crown could be gone in just a few days, especially if its earnings forecast is below expectations.