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Applied Materials' Slide Brings Out Buyers

Updated from 9:50 a.m. EST

Shares of Applied Materials (AMAT) fell Thursday after the company forecast a painful 35% decline in first-quarter orders. However, analysts were split on whether the shares were getting cheap enough to buy.

The stock was recently faring better and was down 36 cents, or 2.1%, to $16.98, after earlier approaching its 52-week low of $15.34. First Albany lowered the stock to neutral from buy, while Needham and J.P. Morgan opined that the worst of the company's news is probably out.

At First Albany, Auguste Richard said he thinks the shares "will trade sideways until bookings momentum returns."

He added that the quality of fourth-quarter earnings was weak. Applied had guided EPS to 24 cents to 26 cents, but after stripping out a lower-than-expected tax rate, earnings would have been 23 cents -- a penny below the company's guidance. His firm hasn't done banking for Applied.

In the opposite camp, Needham's Robert Maire wrote, "While the knee-jerk reaction is likely to be very negative, we would not be surprised to see some upgrades from other analysts calling for an early bottom. This is true in that the stocks tend to bottom a quarter or two before reality bottoms in this group." Recently, he pointed out, fellow equipment maker Teradyne (TER) reported a similarly disastrous outlook but saw its stock price gain on the news.

To be sure, Applied's order guidance for a slide of 35% was a "shock" to investors who had expected a decline on the order of 15% to 20%. But if orders bottom out as predicted, implying a quarterly bookings level of $1.7 billion, the situation would still be much better than the previous cycle in which Applied's orders bottomed out at $1 billion and the company saw a loss, he said.

"The most downside we can see is likely to be a retreat away from the gains seen in the recent days, if there is any retreat at all," concluded Maire, who maintained his buy rating on the stock. His firm hasn't done recent banking for Applied.

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