The Day Ahead: The folly of afterhours trading

Companies feel the pain on traders' knee-jerk reactions
Written by Larry Dignan, Contributor

Commentary: You have to wonder why we financial types even bother watching afterhours trading. Portal Software and Intuit both topped estimates handily, but were whacked in a knee-jerk afterhours trading.

Did these super-sleuth afterhours traders know something we didn't? They couldn't have. As both companies were being bullish on their respective analyst conference calls, shares were plunging 20 percent or more on the Island exchange.

You can only glean so much from afterhours trading. It's a nice sideshow to keep us interested after the market closes, but most of these trades don't account for conference calls or analyst reactions.

For the sake of argument, we'll leave out the afterhours trading of CacheFlow and Novell. Both of those companies met or beat estimates, but the momentum was clearly working against CacheFlow. Meanwhile, Novell is the forgotten stock. Who cares at this point? The company blew it a few quarters ago.

Let's look at the afterhours trades of Portal Software and Intuit.

Portal Software's biggest crime was doubling earnings estimates and mentioning that North American telecommunications upstarts delayed spending -- capital fled those companies that didn't have a business model. Portal Software, which provides Internet Protocol billing software and services, has been whacked over fears of telecommunications capital spending.

The company was roughly in line with revenue projections and delivered a bullish outlook. "The pipeline is better than it has ever been," said chief executive John Little.

Besides, Portal Software is more linked to telecommunications customer growth than telco capital spending. Billing software is a necessity and Portal has the market cornered. The company has also made a big push to land the top carriers. Analysts said Portal has 15 of the top 20 carriers worldwide. Officials were confident Portal would land more big carriers.

As Portal was telling analysts that demand was strong and revenue would be up about 13 percent to 16 percent sequentially to $81m to $83m, including a recent acquisition, shares fell a bit more. Portal fell more as Little was detailing how Europe and Asia sales were strong. Portal said it was comfortable with fiscal 2002 sales and earnings targets, but held back on more guidance because the company was still in its planning phase.

You could nit-pick over Portal's results, but the company handled itself well in what could have been a tough quarter.

Portal Software also has momentum problems. Shares were trading near a 52-week low Tuesday. On Wednesday, shares may fall some more and Little will be asked what he said to scare investors. He'll have no idea. Neither do we.

And let's not forget Intuit, a personal finance software/portal company that has seen damn near all of its dot-com competition die in the last year.

Intuit topped analysts' sales and earnings targets, showed traction for its numerous small business initiatives and turned a profit with its online mortgage business. Saying Intuit is in a strong position is quite an understatement.

The crime? Intuit didn't talk up estimates for fiscal year. It's still counting on some big growth ahead. It didn't matter. As Intuit was telling folks how its tax season would boost results and allow the company to pull ahead even more, shares were down about 18 percent.

Sure, you could fret about some minor details -- Intuit's online insurance business still isn't where it needs to be -- but the overall picture looks good.

Maybe afterhours traders were worried about Intuit's problems, which most companies would love to have. Intuit has to diversify its online advertiser base -- those big financial services companies that make gobs of money dominate the customer list. Awww. Now poor Intuit needs to go after those big companies like Ford Motor that would love to market to its affluent user base. As for dot-com advertisers, Intuit doesn't have many.

Anyone with a time horizon of more than six months would like Intuit's potential. But potential isn't much of an issue in afterhours trading, which requires that you trade now and think later -– maybe.

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