The Day Ahead: Welcome to revenue season

Revenue is all that matters these days and investors will be hanging on every revenue statistic they can find
Written by Larry Dignan, Contributor on

With earnings season rapidly approaching, I'd like to propose a more accurate name for all the hubbub -- revenue season.

Yes, revenue season. Revenue is all that matters these days and investors will be hanging on every revenue statistic they can find. Revenue split between businesses, revenue splits among products, revenue growth among product lines and revenue projections for the next few quarters.

If you haven't noticed lately, folks are big on revenue.

The so-called top line has become the bottom line. We can see the headlines now: Company X tops revenue estimates.

Why even bother with actual earnings? Earnings are baked, manipulated and cluttered by investment gains, options accounting, cash earnings, net earnings and the dreaded EBITDA (earnings minus all the bad stuff). Some dot-coms even tout gross profits from time to time, indicating that they sell goods for more than they paid for them.

A host of revenue warnings prove that investors are much more interested in the top line.

Apple is just the latest company to get hammered on concerns about sales. Apple's fourth quarter sales will be up sequentially, but not enough to meet expectations. Demand fell short across all geographies. The result: Apple shares plunged 52 percent. Sure, Apple also missed bottom line expectations, but analysts were clearly focused on the revenue growth.

The revenue worries are everywhere.

Priceline.com said a slowdown in airline ticket sales will cut revenue to the range of $340m to $345m, compared to analysts' estimates of around $360m to $380m. The sales warning appeared to be attributed to a few one-time factors such as flight delays and gas surcharges, and Priceline.com will still meet estimates with a loss of a penny a share. The bottom line -- always a subject of debate for Priceline.com investors -- was irrelevant.

Intel fell into the same category with its revenue warning. The company will probably meet estimates since its investment income will be higher than expected.

But investors were much more concerned about the companies top line growth, which will be 3 to 5 percent higher than second quarter revenue of $8.3bn. Wall Street wigged out over Intel's sales projections. Intel's persistent execution problems don't help either. "We believe that the time to reduce exposure to Intel shares has come earlier than expected," said DB Alex Brown's Erika Klauer, who and sliced her price target to $40 from $88. For dramatic effect, Klauer lowered her rating to "underperform", a sharp decline from "strong buy".

Another case of revenue jitters also hit Oracle. The company recently delivered a big upside surprise on the bottom line, but everyone sweated first quarter applications sales, which were up only 42 percent from a year ago. Analysts were hoping for growth of about 70 percent.

The revenue focus was inevitable. Earnings have become an accounting laughingstock. Earnings have more flavours than Ben & Jerry's. Revenue is the only line you can't completely fudge. Sort of.

Take a gander at CoSine Communications and you may see the beginning of the multi-flavour revenue approach. CoSine, a communications equipment vendor, rocketed in its market debut last week, but rejiggered its revenue ahead of the initial public offering. Under the request of the Securities and Exchange Commission, the company restated revenue to exclude warrants that it issued to customers.

The end result was CoSine had two revenue totals. For the six months ending June 30, CoSine reported revenue of $11.2m. Excluding "non-cash charges related to equity issuances", the company reported sales of $7.6m.

"Our reporting of revenue is affected significantly by warrants issued to our initial customers, including Qwest, AduroNet and Broadband Office," the company said in regulatory filings. "These warrants were issued upon receipt of substantial purchase orders which were preceded by a period of co-operation with us in the marketing, development and refinement of our products. "

Basically, CoSine was gaining revenue at the expense of warrants. The practice is common in the communications equipment sector where giants such as Qwest and Williams Communications often cash in on high-flying IPOs. If the SEC prompts fibre-optic companies to report revenue excluding warrants, the top line could become just as confusing as the bottom line.

Won't that be fun?

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