Apple 2.0

Covering the business that Steve Jobs built

Apple: Accounting rule vote today

September 22, 2009: 8:13 AM ET

fasb

[UPDATE: The FASB voted 5-0 Wednesday to approve the rule change. See here.]

The Financial Accounting Standards Board (FASB), the organization empowered by the SEC to set accounting standards in the United States, is set to vote Wednesday, Sept. 23, on rule changes that could significantly affect Apple's (AAPL) reported earnings and stock price, according to a report to clients issued Tuesday by Morgan Stanley's Kathryn Huberty.

The new rules -- for which Apple lobbied heavily -- would put an end to iPhone subscription accounting, a balance-sheet sleight of hand that has confused analysts and investors from the day the iPhone hit the market.

Although the changes won't affect Apple's cash flow, Huberty sees short-term benefits "from a technical and sentiment perspective" including (in her words):

  1. Inflows from quant driven strategies and retail investors as AAPL shares will screen cheaper on "New" GAAP consensus estimates vs. "Current" GAAP (19x vs. 23x);
  2. Likelihood of larger earnings surprises given analysts have consistently underestimated iPhone gross margins which have ranged between 50-60% over the last year.

The bottom line, she writes, is that the new rules allow Apple to recognize the majority of the revenue and direct costs of an iPhone upfront (she estimates 95%), shifting value from the balance sheet to the income statement.

Although the rule change will affect many technology companies, Huberty points out, it is particularly relevant for Apple since the iPhone, which is subject to current subscription accounting rules, represents approximately 33% of its revenue.

The rule changes, if ratified, wouldn't become mandatory until Dec. 2011. But Huberty believes that Apple will begin implementing them in their first fiscal quarter of 2010, which begins next week.

A Mad Money report on the proposed rule changes last Tuesday sparked a rally that sent Apple shares up nearly 10.8 points (6.1%) to a 15-month high of $186.79 before it ran out of steam. The stock closed Monday at 184.02.

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About This Author
Philip Elmer-Dewitt
Philip Elmer-DeWitt
Editor, Apple 2.0, Fortune

Philip Elmer-DeWitt has been following Apple since 1982, first for Time Magazine, and now on the Web for Fortune.com.

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