Financial analysts forecast first-ever year-over-year decline in iPhone sales

Tough to compete with the huge numbers of the iPhone 6 and 6 Plus a year ago, says industry expert

Apple logo on blue iPhone 6S leather case
The Apple logo is displayed on the back of an iPhone 6S leather case. Credit: Blair Hanley Frank

Later today, Apple will announce downbeat results from the first quarter of 2016, nearly three dozen financial analysts bet today.

According to Philip Elmer-DeWitt, who formerly blogged about Apple for Fortune but left the magazine earlier this month to kick off his own Apple 3.0 subscription-based site, all 11 independent and 19 institutional analysts pegged rare year-over-year declines in Apple's revenue and a fall in unit sales of its iPhone and iPad lines. Most of the 30 analysts also bet that Mac sales would also slip from the same quarter of 2015.

Elmer-DeWitt has been collecting and averaging financial analysts' forecasts for years, and continued the chore on his new site.

Last year, Apple booked revenue of $58 billion -- a record for the March quarter, and the third-largest overall -- and sold 61.2 million iPhones, 12.6 million iPads and 4.6 million Macs.

Although the 30 analysts' revenue estimates collated by Elmer-DeWitt ranged from a low of $50 billion to a high of $54.2 billion, their average was $52.4 billion, which would represent a year-over-year decline of 9.7%. Thompson Reuters, meanwhile, put the revenue average of 34 analysts at $52 billion, or down 10%.

If Apple does report a revenue downturn, it would be the first year-over-year decline since 2003, the year co-founder and then-CEO Steve Jobs introduced the iTunes digital music store.

The predictions of lower revenue were prompted by prophecies of reduced sales of Apple's devices.

According to Elmer-DeWitt's panel, Apple will say it sold 51.4 million iPhones, a 16% fall-off from last year. It would be the first time that year-over-year iPhone sales have slumped since its 2007 debut.

One industry analyst, however, said that the declining iPhone numbers need to be set in context.

Jan Dawson, principal analyst at Jackdaw Research, argued that the boffo sales of Apple's first large-screen phones, 2014's iPhone 6 and iPhone 6 Plus, skewed the comparison for this year's initial quarter.

For some time, iPhone sales growth has been slowing on a predictable 1% by 1.5% per quarter as the smartphone market matured, Dawson noted in an analysis published Monday on Jackdaw's website. "Apple was approaching saturation of the available distribution channels, and many of those already in the smartphone market who could afford to buy an iPhone had one or one of its high-end Android competitors," he wrote.

But many made the mistake of assuming that the dramatically higher iPhone growth -- which jumped from around 15% for the three quarters before the iPhone 6 introduction to 46% the quarter immediately after -- was the new norm. "The reality is that the iPhone 6 line really just caused a blip in the long-term trajectory of the iPhone," Dawson said. "The iPhone 6 blip is over, but if iPhone sales land roughly where the analysts expect them to, they'll be right back on track with where they were headed before the iPhone 6 launched [emphasis added]."

As calculated by Elmer-DeWitt, the financial analysts' averages for the other legs of Apple's revenue stool -- the iPad and Mac -- were 10 million and 4.5 million units, respectively, for declines of 21% and 1%. The iPad forecast was particularly grim because it would be atop the 23% shrinkage in the March 2015 quarter. Just three years ago, Apple sold 19.5 million iPads in 2013's first quarter, or nearly twice what the experts believe the Cupertino, Calif. company unloaded between Jan. 1 and March 31.

Unless Apple reports a miracle turn-around in iPad sales today, it will have been the ninth straight quarter of contractions for the tablet.

Apple will hold its earnings call today starting at 2 p.m. PT (5 p.m. ET).

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