Apple's shares topped $300 for the first time in the company's history Wednesday as stellar iPad sales and a planned expansion into China give investors all the assurance they need for the iPhone maker's already healthy prospects.
Shares of Apple Inc. climbed $1.60 to close at $300.14 after peaking at a record $301.96 earlier. This gives Apple a market capitalization of about $273 billion. Apple had long surpassed the scale of tech heavyweights such as Microsoft Corp., Google Inc. and IBM, which also hit an all-time high on Wednesday.
In fact, Apple's market cap is now trails only Exxon Mobil Corp. as a U.S. publicly traded company. Exxon's market cap hovers around $330 billion. Big-name corporations such as Wal-Mart Stores Inc. and General Electric Co. don't even come close.
Apple, which reports fiscal fourth-quarter earnings on Monday, has been on a tear lately, with sales of the iPad tablet surpassing expectations. Investors also have high hopes for Apple's push into China, where the iPhone maker is looking to open 25 retail stores next year.
Mounting speculation about a Verizon iPhone as soon as 2011 is also adding to Apple's appeal. Currently, the iPhone is only available from AT&T Inc. in the U.S.
Analysts, on average, expect Apple to report earnings of $4.05 per share on revenue of $18.83 for the quarter, according to a poll by Thomson Reuters.
Morgan Keegan analyst Tavis McCourt said the recent $400 million acquisition of app developer ngmoco by Japan's DeNA Co. is also a huge plus for Apple. Ngmoco is known for the games it makes for the iPhone, though it also plans to release apps for Android devices soon. Even so, McCourt said the pricey acquisition means even more app developers will flock to Apple, where they have the best chance to make the most money.
There is little in the way to slow Apple's ascent. Sterne Agee analyst Vijay Rakesh, who has a target price of $320 on Apple, estimates Apple shipped 12 million to 15 million units of the iPhone 4 during the fourth quarter, well ahead of expectations, and far exceeding the 8.4 million in Apple's third quarter.
IPad sales are also strong. Apple sold 3.3 million of the popular tablets between April and June, their first quarter in stores. Pacific Crest analyst Andy Hargreaves, who has a $330 target price on Apple, estimated in a recent research note that Apple sold nearly 4.9 million iPads in the fourth quarter. This should help the company report what Hargreaves called "incredibly good (quarterly) results by any normal standard" on Monday.
It seems as if only the speed at which Apple products are flying off shelves can slow it down.
Hargreaves believes constraints on supply _ and not demand _ could prevent Apple from beating expectations by as much as it has in many quarters over the past few years.
Elsewhere in tech, shares of Microsoft climbed 51 cents to $25.34 and shares of International Business Machines Corp. rose 52 cents to $140.37 after earlier topping out at a record high of $141.48.