Stuart Ralph discusses Smartphone sales as useful (or otherwise) proxy for economic outlook


Stuart Ralph – Investment Manager

The stockmarket recently wiped $50bn off Apple’s stockmarket valuation following its news of slowing iPhone sales in China. The US tech giant now anticipates revenues of around $84bn for the latest financial quarter, a decrease of approximately 8% from earlier guidance. Since China accounts for 20% of all company revenues, and as weakness was specifically seen within iPhone sales, the decline indicates quite a sharp fall in demand. In the aftermath, commentators have also suggested that given the iPhone’s symbolism of affluence within China, declining sales is a worrying sign for Chinese consumer confidence and the wider global economic outlook.

While I agree that weaker sales in China is of concern to Apple (and its suppliers), I am reluctant to see this as a more widespread and worrying sign. It’s obvious that US – Sino relations are increasingly challenging, and incrementally damaged by the arrest of Huawei’s CFO in Canada on the request of US authorities in relation to Iranian Trade embargo matters. The fact that President Trump suggests a more widespread deal between the two countries could remedy the situation clearly masks the wider political intent.

However, the real problem is that companies such as Apple, Samsung and Huawei are victims of their own success. They have over recent years produced increasingly complex, technologically sophisticated and ultimately increasingly “must-have” devices that the populations of the world have embraced. However at the same time, their high-end devices have become ever more expensive.

As I look at my 4 year old iPhone 6 Plus and the images it can take, I can’t see a clear imperative to buy a new phone with an ever better camera or faster processor. It can do all the surfing, emailing, texting, video conferencing, ticket purchasing, music listening and media consuming activities that I could possibly need. I can even login into my work desktop should I wish and it’s a great sat-nav system at the weekends. While it doesn’t have some of the operating bells and whistles that newer devices have, the underlying functionality remains virtually identical.

My belief is that for the vast majority of people, once devices reached a certain point in technological evolutionary terms, the applications that can be run on them is key – new operating system updates / compatibility issues / and dare I say it, intentional obsolescence are the critical factors.

So the question is – if Consumers are happy with their amazing devices and not cajoled into upgrading, then the additional disposable income required to purchase a new device can be used to purchase a range of different products. In economic parlance, the marginal utility per unit of cost associated with a new device is less than the marginal utility per unit cost gained consuming a range or basket of alternative goods.

There will of course be new consumers that underpin future sales, but a combination of enhanced functionality and cost increases have resulted in the replacement cycle being pushed out. The higher the technological bar and cost, the further this cycle will be pushed out.

Growth in China is almost certainly slowing and a deeper economic downturn may yet be seen, but the truth is that no single data point should be regarded as a proxy for the overall performance of the Chinese economy.