A Lot of People Are Anxious About Apple's iPhone 14 Sales. Here's Why

Sales at Apple may tell us a lot about consumer spending at a time when tech stocks, and the larger economy, seem to be spiraling out of control.

Ian Sherr Contributor and Former Editor at Large / News
Ian Sherr (he/him/his) grew up in the San Francisco Bay Area, so he's always had a connection to the tech world. As an editor at large at CNET, he wrote about Apple, Microsoft, VR, video games and internet troubles. Aside from writing, he tinkers with tech at home, is a longtime fencer -- the kind with swords -- and began woodworking during the pandemic.
Ian Sherr
4 min read
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When you think of Apple, you probably think of the iPhone. Or perhaps the Mac or the older iPod music player. When you think about Apple's bank account, bursting at more than $179 billion in cash and marketable securities, you probably imagine a pile of money larger than anything you've seen in a cartoon. This week, Apple will likely take on a new role too, as a bellwether for our shaky economy.

The Californian tech giant is set to release a financial report for its fourth fiscal quarter this Thursday, releasing details about its revenue and profit between July and September. It's not the months that cover the all-important holiday shopping season, during which Apple typically rings up more sales than the entire economic output of many countries. But it will include a couple weeks of sales for its newly released iPhone 14, newest Apple Watches and upgraded AirPods Pro as well.

The report may also serve as sign of health for the worldwide economy. Surveys show that many people are increasingly convinced the world has entered into a painful recession that may linger for a long time. Meanwhile, lawmakers and business leaders are struggling to combat nagging inflation, now above 8%, amid Russia's ongoing war on Ukraine, which has helped spark artificially higher energy prices.

The tech industry, once a bright spot of the economy, is starting to feel the pinch. Google parent Alphabet posted weaker than expected third-quarter earnings Tuesday, driven in part by problems like foreign exchange rates and lower spending from advertisers. Facebook parent Meta on Wednesday missed Wall Street's expectations, and gave a forecast for sales and spending that spooked investors so much the company's shares plummeted more than 22% the next day. 

Hardware makers may not fare any better. Smartphone shipments around the globe are expected to drop more than 6% this year, down to 1.27 billion units, due to what market researcher IDC described as "record-breaking inflation, geopolitical tensions, and other macroeconomic challenges that have significantly dampened consumer demand." Microsoft, meanwhile, warned Tuesday  that sales of its Windows software to power PCs will likely drop more than 30% over the holidays.

Coins on a tabletop marked with mathematical formulas

The shaky world economy could spell weak holiday shopping.

Sarah Tew/CNET

Analysts on average seem convinced Apple may beat that trend, though. The company's expected to report $1.27 per share in profits, up about 2% from the same time a year earlier, according to an average of analyst surveys published by Yahoo Finance. That would translate to $88.9 billion in sales, up nearly 7% from a year ago.

Even then, analysts warn, quirks of the financial calendar mixed with worrying early holiday shopping trends, raise more questions than answers.

"We worry that Apple may have been a Covid beneficiary, amid work/learn from home and strong consumer spending, which could reverse, particularly as consumers' spending priorities change," Bernstein Research analyst Toni Sacconaghi wrote in a message to investors last week.

The key, he said, is what Apple will say about its iPhone 14 sales so far. "Investors should expect Apple to be upbeat about iPhone 14, but it may or may not necessarily reflect the ultimate success of the cycle."

An Apple spokesman didn't respond to a request for comment ahead of the company's earnings.

Tim Cook at Apple's iPhone 14 event

Analysts will be closely listening to whatever Apple CEO Tim Cook (right) says about how iPhone demand is shaping up.

James Martin/CNET

All about the iPhone

Investors and industry watchers always seem jittery about Apple's iPhone sales. After all, that singular product line did represent more than half the company's $365 billion in sales last year. It's no surprise, then, that industry watchers obsessively follow any possible signs of how it's selling. 

On any given week, there seems to be new word of rising or falling demand, and changing manufacturing plans in response. This time around, rumors suggest the more expensive iPhone 14 Pro, starting at $999 in the US, is faring better than its cheaper cousins, the $829 iPhone 14 and $929 iPhone 14 Plus.

"We continue to expect strong iPhone results despite concerns around iPhone production cuts," Evercore ISI analyst Amit Daryanani wrote in a note on Monday, adding that his team's research and surveys indicate strong demand.

Part of why some industry watchers are more upbeat about Apple is that, as Cowen Equity Research analysts said, more expensive "premium" smartphones haven't seen demand fall as much as other, cheaper products.

Though Apple may end up a data point in the ongoing debate about the health of the world economy, Morgan Stanley analysts said they don't expect much of anything Apple says Thursday will "put to rest" any concerns of spending downturns among consumers.

Apple executives will answer questions from analysts on a publicly streamed conference call shortly after releasing the company's earnings Thursday afternoon.