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Software's Woes Will Likely Spread to Hardware

The rash afflicting software has understandably prompted some nervous head-scratching among hardware investors.

The big worry isn't so much about forthcoming second-quarter results but that third-quarter guidance from computer and chipmakers could be a letdown now that major software plays PeopleSoft (PSFT), Siebel (SEBL) and Veritas (VRTS) have flagged disappointing business spending.

Everyone knew the double-digit growth rates that enthralled techland for the past few quarters couldn't last forever. But what's troubling many investors is a sense that corporate expenditures are not picking up the slack from consumers, whose spending is expected to slow in conjunction with the Fed's tightening cycle.

None of the big hardware companies joined the bad-news chorus, but shortfalls at a slew of smaller players in the electronic food chain suggest trouble may be afoot. Among those preannouncing to the downside were Amkor (AMRK) -- a barometer of semiconductor health, because it packages chips for the industry -- PC board and materials makers Merix (MERX) and Park Electrochemical (PEK), storage outfit Emulex (ELX) and hard-disk drive maker Maxtor (MXO).

"In our view, these are too many data points to be brushed aside as company-specific issues," Harris Nesbitt analyst Ambrish Srivastava wrote Thursday in a note downgrading the chip sector.

"My nervousness quotient has risen a fair amount over the past week," said buysider Chuck Jones of Stein Roe Investment Counsel, who expects sales and earnings guidance for the third quarter to be "rather conservative" for the hardware sector.

The slew of preannouncements "does have to give you a little bit of pause, especially given that some of the economic data have been a little weaker than expected," agreed Bob Lee, manager of the (SNTNX) Sentinel Midcap Growth and (SCOAX) Flexcap Opportunities funds, pointing to wobbly jobs-growth numbers last week and Thursday's underwhelming same-store sales reports. He said he'll look to Friday's earnings report from General Electric (GE) and next week's results from Intel (INTC) for a better tell on the broader economy.

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