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New rule could boost Apple's publicly reported earnings

Apple's public accounting records could receive a significant boost, particularly in terms of iPhone profits, if a proposed rule change comes to pass.

The Financial Accounting Standards Board sets accounting standards for U.S. public companies, a power designated to the private, not-for-profit group by the Securities and Exchange Commission. According to Fortune Brainstorm Tech, the FASB has drafted a new rule that Apple heavily lobbied for — a rule that one analyst told AppleInsider could influence the company's stock price.

"If the rule goes through, we believe Apple will be able to defer the iPhone revenue in a less dramatic manner," Piper Jaffray Senior Research Analyst Gene Munster said. "This could meaningfully alter the reported, GAAP-based revenue numbers in future quarters and the change would likely be a positive for the stock."

Under the current rules, Apple was forced to use "subscription accounting" in its iPhone-related filings — a requirement that some believe masked the true profitability of the handheld device. The new rule is currently only in draft form, but if approved, history suggests it could cause dramatic increase on AAPL stock price.

"Subscription accounting meant that Apple has been under-reporting earnings on its bestselling smartphone for two years — one of the factors, Apple bulls believe, that kept its share price from fully reflecting the success of one most profitable products Apple has ever made," the report said.

Author Philip Elmer-DeWitt goes on to cite the hardware maker's third-quarter financial results. Though Apple reported profits of $1.35 per diluted share for the period ending June 27, its earnings per share under the non generally accepted accounting principles would have been $2.14 a share, a total nearly 60 percent higher.

The issue has existed for some time, and led some analysts to comment on what they called Apple's "real" quarterly earnings.

"At the heart of the problem for Apple is its decision to offer iPhone owners free software updates from time to time — a practice that required its accountants to spread the revenue from iPhone sales over the life of a cellphone contract, typically two years," Elmer-DeWitt said.

Apple has cited the generally accepted accounting principles (GAAP) as its reasoning for charging customers nominal fees for various upgrades, such as the iPod touch and Airport Extreme. Because Apple gives its iPhone software updates away for free, though, the Cupertino, Calif., company is required to spread its iPhone revenue over the length of the cell phone contract, which is usually two years.

Because of this, in August, Apple wrote to FASB Chairman Russell Golden in support of changing the rules. In the note, Betsy Rafael, Apple's vice president and corporate controller and principal accounting officer, said the current requirements to not accurately reflect the real economics of transactions. The proposed changes, they said, would address those issues.

"(The changes)... will result in a more accurate reflection of an entity's economic activities," wrote Rafael, "and in less complex and more transparent financial information that will better serve investors, financial analysts, and other users of financial statements."