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Apple CEO Tim Cook Is Worried Tariffs May Help Samsung. Is He Right?

Apple CEO Tim Cook had a private dinner with President Donald Trump on Friday night to discuss the U.S.-China trade war. And it didn't take long for the President to share their conversation with the world.

President Trump told reporters on Sunday that during the dinner, Cook made a "good case" for why Apple shouldn't be subject to a tariff on China-made goods. Cook, according to Trump, said that a 10% tariff on Apple's products would give Samsung, Apple's South Korean competitor, an unfair advantage.

“It’s tough for Apple to pay tariffs if it’s competing with a very good company that’s not,” said Trump.

The President's comments sparked hope among Apple investors that Trump would exempt the iPhone maker from a new round of tariffs that the U.S. plans for a variety of goods, including Mac computers and Apple Watches, on Sept. 1. Last week, the White House said it would delay tariffs on smartphones, including iPhones, until Dec. 15.

Partly based on the President's comments on Sunday, Apple shares rose 2.7% to $212.02 in early trading on Monday.

But does Cook's argument, which Trump seemed to have never considered despite his push for tariffs, make sense? At least some analysts think so.

"Cook is right," Wedbush analyst Dan Ives told Fortune on Monday. "Ultimately, Apple is punished more than any other vendor given its China exposure."

Apple is heavily reliant on China for manufacturing including for iPhones, iPads, and Macs. Only a handful of Apple devices, like the iPhone SE (made in India) and the latest Mac Pro (produced in the U.S.), are built elsewhere.

Samsung, on the other hand, is less dependent on China, according to Ives. That company's products, including its Galaxy Note 10 phone, are mostly made in Vietnam and South Korea.

The difference in location could have major implications on the balance of power between Apple and Samsung. With the tariff, Apple's manufacturing costs would rise 10%, forcing the company to ponder an inevitable question: Whether to pass those costs on to consumers or to swallow them, thereby reducing profit margins.

Meanwhile, Samsung would be able to avoid the tariffs, giving it a financial advantage over Apple, 556 Ventures analyst William Ho said. By not needing to swallow tariff costs, Samsung can offer cheaper prices on its products, giving it an edge over Apple.

"Samsung benefits from any tariffs on Apple products," he said. "Samsung will have greater leverage in furthering promotions that have been essential in (the company) gaining U.S. market share."

The gap between Apple and Samsung is already small, Michael Levin, a partner at research firm Consumer Intelligence Research Partners, pointed out. During the 12 months ending in June, Apple's iPhone accounted for 36% of U.S. smartphone sales while Samsung followed with 33%.

"Samsung keeps Apple honest, and pressures Apple to continue to innovate in product features," Levin said.

But Ho said the Apple-Samsung rivalry—and Cook's worries about how tariffs may impact it—go far beyond selling electronics. Unlike most other Apple challengers, he said that Samsung uses its deep pockets to also compete by building its own factories and manufacturing its own components.

For now, at least, Apple doesn't have that luxury. While it has been slowly acquiring component makers, and most notably announced plans last month to acquire Intel's mobile chip business, Apple still depends on its manufacturing and component partners in China.

Of course, the fact that Trump, who proposed the new round of tariffs, is talking about their potential harm to a huge U.S. company is major about face for him. In the past, he falsely insisted that China would pay any tariffs, but he now acknowledges, at least for Apple, that it would be the one paying the price.

"Apple is still playing from behind the eight ball," Ives said.

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