Recent report of iPad display production halt was the third devastating Apple rumor in five days

Apple Earnings Preview Q1 2013

Apple (AAPL) is reporting on January 23rd. In the time period between January 13th and January 18th, investors have witnessed a jaw-dropping sequence of negative rumors and analyst commentary. The latest hammer strike came on January 18th, when Reuters published a blunt article describing how Sharp has nearly halted production of the iPad’s 9.7-inch screens in its Kameyama plants. The article cites several possibilities for the move, including a seasonal dip and an update in the product portfolio. But the likely shift of iPad demand to iPad mini is the first explanation mentioned in the piece.

On January 13, The Wall Street Journal published a harsh piece noting that orders for certain iPhone 5 components have been cut in half. A few days later TrendForce, a Chinese market research firm, published a note commenting on the weaker than expected sales of Apple’s 9.7-inch tablets.

It’s unusual to get a cluster of news this negative roughly a week prior to a major handset vendor’s earnings report. The backdrop for Apple’s earnings was already bleak, thanks to an earlier rash of reports pegging the iPhone 5 portion of the overall iPhone sales at under 70% or even close to 50%. This would be down considerably from the 90% share of total mix the iPhone 4S achieved at the end of 2011.

Possibly as a reaction to some ink black media reports on Apple’s Christmas quarter, or possibly due to their own proprietary research, many brokerages have reduced their volume estimates for iPhones and iPads. Macquarie Research now anticipates full-sized iPad volume will drop to just 8 million units. Matt Hoffman from Cowen expects total iPad volume to come in at just 18 million units, while Barclays and Nomura estimates have dropped to 21 million. A few months ago, the Christmas quarter iPad debate focused mostly on how far above 25 million units Apple might reach.

Two weeks ago, the sell-side iPhone volume consensus was 52 million units, already millions of units below an earlier consensus level. Several notable houses from Deutsche Bank to Oppenheimer now have their Christmas quarter volume estimate at 45 million units. After last week’s cluster of negative news items from respected sources, it is quite possible that market expectations for iPhone volume have now drifted to 49 million or below.

Even the stalwart Apple bull Gene Munster has moved his March-quarter iPhone estimate to a notably soft 38 million units. Expectations for both Apple’s Christmas quarter and March guidance are now far below where they were in November.

Just how weak would Apple have to be with the current sentiment of dread and foreboding to disappoint? iPad shipments below 21 million units and iPhones below 49 million units would probably do the trick. These should be low bars indeed to clear.

Apple will report sometime around 4:30 p.m. on Wednesday, January 23rd, and we should expect the after-market trading to be quite the spectacle.

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