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Piper: Wall Street underestimates growth potential of Apple's iPhone in China

Sustained growth of the iPhone, especially in China, will help Apple to maintain a 25 to 30 percent growth rate in earnings through 2015, says investment firm Piper Jaffray.

Analyst Gene Munster issued a note to investors on Wednesday expressing the belief that Wall Street currently underestimates Apple's mobile growth potential. Piper Jaffray's 12 month price target for Apple stock is $483. According to Munster, if the iPhone can continue to grow in-line with the smartphone market at a rate of roughly 35 percent in calendar 2011, Apple will sell over 200 million iPhones in 2015.

Given that the iPhone currently comprises 39 percent of Apple's business and that the iPad will likely grow faster than the iPhone, Apple is expected to achieve a sustainable 25 to 30 percent growth rate in earnings.

Piper Jaffray's growth rate estimate runs significantly higher than some of its Wall Street counterparts. "Most investors believe Apple's earnings growth will slow to 15-20% in 2012," said Munster in his note.

With the advent of the iPhone 4 on Verizon, Apple no longer carries any exclusive arrangements with carriers. Munster sees this as a meaningful opportunity for the iPhone maker to add to its addressable subscriber base in "critical markets."

Source: Piper Jaffray estimates

In China, for example, third-place China Telecom has nearly as many subscribers as Verizon, the largest carrier in the U.S., while Indian carrier Reliance, who is also rumored to be in line for the CDMA iPhone, has an impressive 110 million subscribers. Munster believes Apple could initiate a partnership with China Telecom and/or Reliance in 2011.

Apple identified China as a top priority for the company several years ago and has since put "enormous energy" into its expansion there. The strategy is already beginning to pay off, as revenue in Greater China, which includes mainland China, Hong Kong and Taiwan, was up 400 percent year over year in the recent quarter.

Apple's four China-based retail stores are the company's highest traffic and highest revenue stores. As a result, the Cupertino, Calif., company is looking to build bigger stores to accommodate the high number of customers, starting with an upcoming store in Shanghai that will reportedly be the company's largest retail location to date.

Munster, however, is not the only analyst who sees China as critical to Apple's continued growth. According to Ticonderoga Securities analyst Brian White, China is in the early stages of catching "Apple fever."

Katy Huberty with Morgan Stanley is also bullish on Apple's sustained growth in China. The country "could contribute well over half (and as much as 100%) of the total company earnings growth we expect" through fiscal 2012, Huberty wrote in a recent report.