Stellar Apple results point to a good year ahead
(Reuters) - Apple Inc shares surged the most in more than three years, after skyrocketing iPhone and iPad sales helped it smash Wall Street expectations, prompting analysts to raise their price targets on the stock by as much as $100.
Shares of the company, which reported results for its first full quarter without charismatic founder Steve Jobs, were up as much as 8 percent in early trading to $454.45.
At its highest, the share jump added nearly $32 billion to Apple's market value, helping the company overtake oil major Exxon Mobil Corp to become the world's most valuable company with a market capitalization of $430 billion.
During the critical holiday quarter, Apple sold 37.04 million iPhones -- its flagship product -- and 15.43 million iPad tablets, doubling from a year earlier.
"Expectations ran rampant on the iPhone 4S' popularity around the world, and yet December's results reported last night were still "staggering" in comparison," Brigantine Advisors said in a note.
At least 15 brokerages raised their price targets on the company's stock, with two expecting it to touch $650 in the next 12 months.
Citigroup, which raised its price target on the stock by $100 to $600, expects "another stellar product cycle this year with an iPad refresh in March."
The growth momentum should be driven by demand in China and low channel inventories, Citigroup analysts said.
The quarter saw Apple's warchest of cash and securities swell to almost $100 billion -- raising speculation that Apple might use a portion its cash balance to pay back investors in the form of a dividend.
Apple, which last paid dividend in 1995, is one of the few remaining cash-rich technology companies to resist dividend payments.
Chief Financial Officer Peter Oppenheimer said on Tuesday Apple was "actively discussing" the cash balance but didn't have anything to announce.
"We do believe the company should examine a meaningful dividend closely and are intrigued by the possibilities around any sizeable acquisitions that could improve its wireless and online services," Barclays Capital wrote in a note to clients.
The results also plugged concerns that Apple might face a rougher ride than usual in 2012 due to competition from Google Inc's Android - a free software to run smartphones, and from a host of tablets available in the market.
Lingering doubts about the ability of new Chief Executive Tim Cook to lead the company that Jobs built from a garage project into a global leader were also put to rest.
J.P. Morgan Securities, which sees iPad as a "budding growth engine" for Apple, said the strong results suggest there is more than just one major product cycle at the company.
Wedbush Securities expects a new sleeker iPad 3 to be introduced by the end of the first quarter and iPhone 5 to follow in the later part of the year.
The new product introductions will only add to the growth story, analysts said.
Barclays, which named Apple as its top pick in the IT hardware sector, also expects to hear more about the company's entry into the TV business this year.
Of the 56 analysts covering the stock, more than 90 percent have a "strong buy" or a "buy" rating, with only two analysts rating it "sell" or "strong sell."
Suppliers, such as Samsung Electronics, Qualcomm, Toshiba, basked in the reflection of Apple's glowing results.
RBC Capital Markets said the results are likely to be a tailwind for several other companies, including Jabil Circuit and Amphenol.
Shares of Apple's parts suppliers Broadcom Corp and Avago Technologies Ltd edged up higher in trading before the bell.
(Reporting by Fareha Khan and Supantha Mukherjee in Bangalore; Editing by Maju Samuel, Saumyadeb Chakrabarty)
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