Can Apple still deliver an earnings surprise? by Philip Elmer-DeWitt @FortuneMagazine January 22, 2012, 7:38 PM EDT E-mail Tweet Facebook Google Plus Linkedin Share icons The 18% gap between the Street’s estimates and the independents’ suggests that it can Click to enlarge. Data: Company reports, Apple 2.0 Last fall, a Wall Street analyst who shall remain nameless suggested in a note to clients that the days of the big Apple AAPL earnings surprises may be over. He was referring to the string of quarterly reports in which the company beat the Street’s estimates by measures so wide they were (or should have been) an embarrassment to the profession — especially when the amateurs who follow the stock managed to come up with predictions that were considerably closer to the mark. (See chart.) That string of beats ended with the September quarter — Apple’s fiscal Q4 — when customers postponed iPhone purchases in such large numbers that for the first time since 2004 Apple’s earnings came in lower than Wall Street’s consensus. Up was down, down was up, and the analysts with worst track records suddenly had the best numbers. See here. That’s not likely to happen again Tuesday, when Apple reports its Q1 2012 earnings. It’s no secret that the company sold a ton of iPhones — its No. 1 source of revenue — last quarter. “Rising street estimates particularly for the iPhone,” wrote Hudson Square’s Daniel Ernst two weeks ago, “sets a high bar for a beat.” Click to enlarge. Still, there’s considerable conservatism built into Wall Street’s spreadsheets, as evidenced by the chart at right. It shows the percentage difference between the estimates we’ve gathered from more than 50 analysts — professional and independent — in seven categories: revenues, earnings, gross margin and unit sales of iPhones, iPods, iPads and Macs. That 18% gap in the EPS estimates is almost as wide as last quarter’s, and that was the widest we’d ever seen. We’ve posted a detailed spreadsheet of the individual estimates below the fold, but here, for the record, are the consensus numbers from our two groups of analysts: We’ll find out which group was closest when Apple reports its earnings after the closing bell on Tuesday Jan. 24. Below: The individual analysts’ numbers. As usual, we’ve included rank numbers that show how accurate each analyst’s revenue and EPS estimates were over the past four quarters (the lower the better). Click to enlarge.