The Day Ahead: There's a bright side to plunging expectations

When profit warnings merely provoke yawns and shrugs, the market can't be far from bottom
Written by Larry Dignan, Contributor

Commentary: Here's some good news for investors. Tech companies' profit and sales warnings are accelerating and Wall Street just isn't shocked anymore. Folks, those once lofty expectations are coming down so fast that merely meeting estimates may be viewed as great news.

Investors are clearly hoping for the market to hit bottom -- there's a lot of cash sitting on the sidelines. Conventional wisdom dictates that when negative preannouncements spark yawns you're somewhere close to the bottom.

Consider the following:

Xilinx lowered its sales forecasts, and shares held steady as analysts reiterated "buy" ratings. Just a week earlier, rival Altera, which also makes programmable logic devices, issued a profit warning and shares were creamed as investors bailed. So what's the difference?

Xilinx's warning wasn't as bad as Altera's. If Xilinx would have warned first, its shares would have been whacked. Rick Billy of SG Cowen maintained a "buy" rating and called the lowered guidance "not good news, but not as bad as Altera". Simply put, investors are braced for the worst.

DoubleClick confirmed layoffs, and the press counted the move as a milestone -- DoubleClick's first job cuts. The news was viewed as yet another nail in the online advertising coffin. But a funny thing happened on the way to the funeral, DoubleClick shares held steady. DoubleClick execs said it was "right-sizing the business", and analysts took that admission as a good sign.

LSI Logic pulled off a flip-flop to make politicians proud. LSI said 9 November that it was comfortable with estimates for sales and profits. On 5 December, LSI bit the bullet and issued a profit warning. The news surprised no one, and shares actually moved a bit higher on the news.

You'd think the LSI move would annoy investors, but Wall Street is realising that the economy is slowing quickly. It's no surprise that LSI was caught off guard. Other chipmakers had already noted the inventory worries in the industry.

Apple shocks Wall Street with yet another profit warning, and investors simply shrug. Shares did fall, but it was nothing compared to Apple's plunge when it issued a profit warning last quarter. Some analysts even found a bright side, noting that the warning wasn't a surprise and Apple's cash position is worth about $10 a share.

3Com issued a profit warning, and shares were creamed. But there were a lot of folks coming to the company's defense. Analysts touted the company's cash position, and even my fellow ZDII columnist found a bright side. 3Com obviously thinks it's not all bad -- the company is buying shares back.

"3Com valuation remains well below all comparable companies. 3Com's balance sheet remains strong, with an estimated cash and equivalents per share of $6.45," said Michael Cristinziano, an analyst with Gerard Klauer Mattison.

Motorola's profit warning was the clincher for me and my falling expectations theory. Motorola lowered earnings and sales guidance again, and analysts on a conference call were pretty mellow about the whole thing. Maybe it's just that we expect Motorola to miss quarters. Or maybe we're just getting used to bad news these days. Eventually, expectations will go so low that Wall Street will be putting value and tech stocks in the same sentence.

There's one more burst of earnings set before the holiday stock market siesta sets in. Oracle and two CMGI companies -- NaviSite and Engage are set to report earnings.

Needless to say, most investors will be watching Oracle. Topics to look for will be applications sales growth and any signs that the company's brain drain is hurting the software giant.

Here's the breakdown:

12 December: Engage reports its first quarter earnings and we know the prognosis isn't good. The company already issued a profit warning. Meanwhile, online advertising growth is in a rut. First Call estimates: ($0.23)

12 December: NaviSite reports its first quarter earnings. These results may be a little tougher to call. First Call estimates: ($0.40)

14 December: Oracle could go a long way to cheering up tech investors. Aside from the items mentioned above, you should also tune into the company's conference call just to hear chief executive Larry Ellison spew his usual venom. First Call estimates: $0.10.

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