Apple may consider changes in iPhone accounting methods – and how it might affect earnings

Tue, Sep 1, 2009

Finance, News

Jim Goldman of CNBC has an interesting piece up where he suggests that Apple may be exploring ways to account for all of its iPhone revenue at the time of sale, instead of spreading out the cost of purchase over a period of 24 months as it does nwo.

As it stands now, there is an accounting requirement which dictates that non-subscription devices (such as the iPod Touch) are subject to a fee when upgraded.  In contrast, subscription devices, such as the iPhone, can be upgraded via software updates as many times as necessary without the need to charge customers.  Essentially, the only way Apple can currently provide free iPhone OS updates to consumers is if it labels the iPhone as a subscription device and defers its iPhone income over the course of 24 months.

Some argue that this isn’t an ideal situation for Apple, as it causes analysts to grossly underestimate Apple’s financial strength.  But now it appears that Apple may be trying to have the best of both worlds – Instantly recognize iPhone income while at the same time being able to provide iPhone users with the free updates they’ve come to expect.

Goldman cites a blurb from a recent investor note written by Apple analyst Gene Munster:

We believe several industry players (we have not confirmed Apple is one of them) and FASB with the Emerging Issue Task Force, are exploring possible amendments to the accounting rules that require subscription accounting.

If the rule goes through, we believe Apple will be able to defer the iPhone revenue in a different (and less dramatic) manner.  This could meaningfully alter the reported, GAAP-based revenue numbers in future quarters and the change would likely be positive for the stock.

Goldman goes on to write that if Apple weren’t subject to the above-mentioned accounting provisions, its earnings statement would look even more impressive than they are now, which is saying something.

We, however, don’t entirely aggree with Goldman’s assertion that such a move by Apple would be extremely significant.  For starters, any analyst worth his salt already bakes in Apple’s accounting method into his/her analysis.  Second, Apple typically provides analysts with earnings figures that represent what things would like like if Apple did account for iPhone revenue on a non-subscription basis.   Lastly, and most importantly, Goldman is overlooking the inherent benefit Apple derives by deferring iPhone revenue over a period of time – namely that its success now serves as insurance, of sorts, should Apple run into some roadblocks and rough economic patches down the line.

Over the past few years, Apple has delivered stellar earnings reports quarter after quarter.  If some of the astronomical iPhone profits earned by Apple can be applied to future “slumping” quarters, it ensures that Apple’s earnings don’t take as big of a hit in the future should sales begin to slow down.


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2 Comments For This Post

  1. pk de cville Says:

    “For starters, any analyst worth his salt already bakes in Apple’s accounting method into his/her analysis.”

    If that’s true why is Apple not trading above $200 now? The non-GAAP numbers are fundamentally much stronger (30% +) thanht GAAP. Employing non-GAAP stats Apple’s PE multiple approaches 15!

  2. Constable Odo Says:

    Everything Apple does now and in the future is already baked into it’s current share price. I was surprised to hear the China Unicom agreement was already baked into the share price even though nobody has a clear picture of how many iPhones will be sold.

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