Guidance a worm in Apple's Q3

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Apple blew past quarterly earnings expectations and sold far more iPods than many had predicted only to see its stock plunge as much as 11% in after-hours trading Monday.

The culprit for the swift and negative reaction probably was Apple's weak guidance, even though it is nothing new for Apple to downplay its future financial prospects. Shrinking margins — from 36.9% to 34.8% — also might have played a part.

Apple earned $1.07 billion in its fiscal third quarter, or $1.19 a share, much better than the $1.07 analysts had predicted and up 31% year-over-year. Revenue jumped 38% to $7.46 billion, about $100 million more than predicted.

The company sold nearly 2.5 million Mac units, up 41%, and 717,000 iPhones, a threefold increase from a year ago, though the new phone was only on sale for one weekend in the third quarter last year.

The strength in iPods, though, might have caught some by surprise, especially considering that sales growth during the first quarter was only 1%.

This time around, Apple said it sold 11 million iPods, up 12% from the same quarter last year.

Apple's guidance was for $7.8 billion revenue in its fiscal fourth quarter and $1 per share in earnings, while analysts were predicting $1.23 per share on $8.3 billion revenue.

Apple CFO Peter Oppenheimer suggested the conservative guidance is related to the soft U.S. economy.

"We didn't see any obvious impact to the business in the June quarter," he said. "We're certainly aware of the economic environment, and we've considered it among other factors in preparing our guidance."

Oppenheimer also teased analysts during a conference call about future products he could not discuss, while COO Timothy Cook said that Apple TV "remains a hobby, as we call it."

Cook added, though, that Apple intends on continuing to invest in Apple TV, a set-top box that moves iTunes content to television sets.

The executives also were asked about the health of Steve Jobs, the CEO who, as per usual, was not on the conference call. Jobs — who also is Disney's biggest individual shareholder — underwent successful surgery for pancreatic cancer five years ago, though rumors sometimes surface that declining health will prompt him to step down from Apple's top post.

Oppenheimer told the analysts that Jobs "has no plans to leave Apple." He added that "Steve's health is a private matter."

Apple shares, up fractionally to $166.29 during the regular session, lost about $18 per share after the closing bell. (partialdiff)
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