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Tuesday, January 22, 2008, 09:00 am PT (12:00 pm ET)

Apple shares bleed red ahead of afternoon earnings report

Shares of Apple Inc. joined the broader technology sector in a brief free-fall early Tuesday morning as growing fears of a recession and slowing global economy weighed heavily on the Nasdaq stock market.

At one point, the company's shares were down over $11.50 or more than 7.2 percent to $149.80 before fighting back to regain approximately half of those losses. Overall, Apple shares have steadily fallen more than 15 percent since the start of the new year.

The latest skid comes just hours before the company will release results for its fiscal first quarter ended December. Analysts on average are expecting the gadget maker to report earnings of $1.62 per share on sales of $9.47 billion.

With rough iPhone sales figures having been disclosed at last week's Macworld Expo and NPD iPod estimates presumed to be fairly representative, much of Wall Street's attention is expected to zero in on Apple's Mac sales number.

On average, the Street is looking for record-setting Mac sales of 2.3 million units, which would best the company's existing record set last quarter of 2.164 million units.

Apple said in October it expects first quarter earnings of approximately $1.42 per share on revenues of $9.2 billion for the quarter.

Shaw Wu, an analyst with American Technology Research, believes those estimates will again prove conservative. He's modeling slightly above consensus estimates at per-share earnings of $1.63 on sales of $9.4 billion.

"As in previous quarters, we believe the gross margin will likely be the biggest swing factor in driving earnings-per-share upside or downside dependent on product mix and the ability to capitalize on favorable component pricing," he said.

Wu believes Apple will report quarterly gross margin of 33 percent, compared to the company's estimated 31 percent and the 31.2 percent reported for the year-ago quarter.

Looking ahead to the current quarter, the AmTech analyst believes Apple will continue with its conservative guidance "to help set more realistic expectations." He's currently modeling per-share earnings of $1.10 on sales $6.9 billion, noting that iPods have historically seen a seasonal decline during the quarter.

Apple will report earnings from its fiscal first quarter ended December following today's closing bell. AppleInsider will provide its usual in-depth coverage of the report and subsequent conference call.