Wall Street is looking for proof that Apple knows what it's doing.
FORTUNE — Analysts are not looking for any big surprises this afternoon when Apple AAPL reports its earnings for the last fiscal quarter of 2013.
Sales are expected to be up slightly from last year and earnings down once again — the first time in a decade income has fallen three quarters in a row. (See Final estimates for Apple’s Q4 2013.)
Guidance for the December quarter should be modestly positive. (See Looking forward.)
But beyond the numbers, Wall Street is looking for something else. Two years after Steve Jobs died, investors want assurance that Tim Cook knows what he’s doing.
We won’t hear about any new products today, and concerns about Apple’s long-term vision will have to wait. But we may learn something about some of the more pressing questions swirling around the company.
With competition heating up and key markets approaching saturation, these come to mind:
- Can Apple still make stuff fast enough to meet demand? The company fell behind on the iPhone 5 and iMac last year and the iPhone 5S this year, leaving money on the table. The jury is still out on the new iPads. We don’t even have a firm ship date for the Retina iPad mini.
- Is the company making pricing mistakes? The iPhone 5C is perceived as being priced too high. Same with the iPad 2. But maybe Cook knows better.
- Is there still growth left in the Mac? We should get a sense today of how well the new MacBook Airs sold to students.
- Is Apple making a strategic error in the developing markets? The low-cost iPhone Wall Street was waiting for didn’t materialize. How long will Apple be content to skim profits from the world’s richest markets?
- Did the company over-play its hand with China Mobile? The world’s largest mobile operator is selling a ton of smartphones, but not the iPhone. What’s up with that?
- Is Apple mismanaging its cash? Carl Icahn is not the only one who thinks so.
Anything I’m missing?
The analysts who are invited to participate in the company’s conference calls are not always the best at asking these kinds of questions, but you never know.
We’ll be listening in. You can too.
LINK: Apple Financial Results Conference Call. Live streaming audio starts at 5 p.m. Eastern, 2 p.m. Pacific.