Three (Post-Earnings) Predictions for Apple

Apple (Nasdaq: AAPL) turns in its quarterly report card this evening after the closing bell. Its earnings, like any company’s, are all about the past. With Apple, the direction to look is forward.

First, the basics: Apple is expected to turn in $1.17 a share for its third quarter, roughly in line with a year ago. Its full-year earnings are forecast at $5.57, a slight increase from the $5.36 it posted last year. Recession or not, Apple’s intensely loyal (and evidently well-heeled) customers have decided they can’t make it through the downturn without the latest Apple gadgetry.

Shares were lower in midday trading, along with the overall tech sector. Apple has surprised to the upside in each of the past 17 quarters. There’s no reason to expect otherwise, which makes the stock seem like a good buy at its current level.

Certainly the options market seems to think so. A call option is a contract that allows its owner to buy shares at a certain price during a specified time. The $160 Apple call is the most popular option being traded for the next three months. This suggests investors think the price of Apple shares will be above $160. In fact, it means that investors are betting on Apple reaching well above that, as the call options’ cost raise the break-even point. (If the option on a $160 stock costs $5, you’re not in the black until the price hits $165.01.)

Here’s what I expect from Apple by the end of the year:

A stock split. I think the company will split its shares to make them more attractive to individual investors. At their current price of $150, the shares seem expensive. At $75 or $50 — a 2-for-1 or 3-for-1 split, the shares seem cheaper, even as the fundamentals stay the same.

A high-profile addition to the leadership team. Steve Jobs’ liver transplant was masterfully handled. I know a lot of market watchers felt the company should have disclosed the procedure in advance, but that would have, in my mind, roiled the market unnecessarily — after all, the guy was already on medical leave. And even though Jobs is back at work, he needs at least one pre-groomed successor. Such a move will go a long way to reassure Wall Street.

A new product. Rumors of a book reader abound. The market for the product is getting bigger, with offerings from Amazon, Sony and now Barnes & Noble. A book reader would expand Apple’s reach and bring in revenue from sources other than hardware. Such a model — used successfully with iTunes and now the iPhone App Store — makes a great product all the more profitable for as long as it’s in use.

Apple is a company people love feeling good about. Even at 27 times earnings, even after returning more than +75% so far this year, there’s still room for shareholders to profit as Apple builds on its remarkable success.