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Profit warnings cloud tech earnings season

With earnings season just days away, the question marks are beginning to pile up around tech companies and their fourth quarter results

And the timing couldn't be worse. The Nasdaq surged in more than 85 percent in 1999 and now Wall Street is cashing in. Many stocks, especially in the high-flying tech sector, have perfect quarters already priced in. Any imperfection could send tech shares reeling.

No matter what Yahoo!, Motorola and company say on next week's conference calls, investors are sure to find something wrong.

Meanwhile, Wall Street has to digest a slew of profit warnings. Gateway said its fourth quarter earnings would miss estimates because of slower business-to-business sales. Many businesses stopped buying in the fourth quarter because of concerns about Year 2000.

The company said it expects revenue of $2.45bn (£1.51bn) in the quarter and operating earnings of 37 cents a share. Those results will miss expectations by 7 cents a share.

Gateway, however, was bullish on the first quarter and told analysts not to adjust their estimates. So Gateway's miss isn't a big deal in the long run, but it comes at a bad time.

But Gateway's warning will spark doubts about other PC makers such as IBM, Compaq and Dell. If processor shortages dinged Gateway other PC makers probably had the same problems. Meanwhile, Intel has disappointed two consecutive quarters and could go for the hat trick. The only company that may look good after the fallout is AMD.

And Gateway isn't the only tech company with a financial warning. Analysts couldn't dump BMC Software fast enough Wednesday.

BMC said it expected its third quarter earnings to be about 40 cents a share to 44 cents a share. Analysts had expected 53 cents a share for the quarter, ended December 31.

BMC said it couldn't close some key deals in the quarter and couldn't guarantee that its results would improve.

"We did not see our customers willing to execute very large transactions in December. We cannot determine at this point whether this trend will continue in coming quarters," Chairman and CEO Max Watson said in a conference call with analysts.

You can't read too much into BMC's warning since it issued a profit warning in its second quarter too, but it's enough to worry investors about other software companies.

Internet companies weren't left out either. Beyond.com also stepped up to the plate and said its fourth-quarter sales will fall short of analysts' estimates.

Company officials now expect sales to be between $34m to $35m, up 167 percent from the year-ago quarter but well short of most analysts' estimates of around $50m. The company, however, will post a lower-than-expected loss, but that isn't much comfort. Beyond.com will still lose a ton of cash.

Sure Beyond.com blamed its woes on its transition to a new business model, but if Beyond.com is warning about its sales, can other e-tailing companies be far behind? Value America (Nasdaq: VUSA) has crashed on its profit warning.

And we can't forget other recent profit warnings from companies such as ParametricTechnology and Corel, which misses more quarters than it makes.

Even when the news is allegedly positive, there are items to worry investors.

Amazon.com said its fourth quarter sales would come in at about $650m, well above year-ago figures and ahead of official Wall Street projections. But those sales, which missed "whisper numbers," don't mean Amazon.com's bottom line will improve.

In true Amazon.com style, the company said losses won't shrink and added there will be inventory writedowns. Amazon.com shares fell because investors want the company to emulate Priceline.com, which is growing sales and cutting losses.

How large will Amazon.com's writedowns be? When will Amazon.com mutter the "p" word for profits?

Investors want to know. A lot of earnings on deck and a lot of questions to come. Should be a fun week.

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