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Cisco on the Run

Cisco (CSCO) chief John Chambers has his own way of dealing with bad news: He runs away from it.

At least that's what Chambers said Wednesday, when he told analysts how frustrated he has gotten with the gloomy economic forecasts that have increasingly prevailed in recent months.

Chambers made his point during a conference call after Cisco reported solid fiscal first-quarter results. Shares fell sharply, though, because of an alarming decline in tech spending among the bad-debt-laden U.S. banks.

Chambers says the problem was largely isolated to "dramatic decreases" in networking equipment orders from financial institutions. But with its broad product portfolio and its global strength, Cisco was able to shrug off the so-called credit crunch.

Outfits such as Morgan Stanley (MS) and AIG (AIG) were the latest financial shops to take multibillion-dollar charges Wednesday on soured mortgage-related assets.

Analysts on the call asked Chambers -- who enjoys the role of a self-made global economist during his business outlook discussions -- if the weakened financial health of big banks was a growing concern beyond the U.S. Chambers said sluggish tech spending here was not spreading to other markets, adding that he wasn't seeing any "issues of concern" among customers outside the U.S.

In his run as chief of Cisco, Chambers has always had an optimistic take on the health of world commerce. On his last earnings call in August, he raised his level of optimism above that already high base, saying: "This is the strongest global economy I've been a part of."

So it's probably no surprise that he has little tolerance for a less than sunny view of the money world. On the call Wednesday Chambers described how negativism -- presumably on the business channel CNBC -- drove him out of his house.

"I have a favorite TV show in the morning that I run with," Chambers said on the conference call. "I exercise on my exercise machine, but they were so pessimistic in terms of their guess in the number of economists that were predicting economic slowdown that I actually had to start running outside in order to stay in shape."

Chambers' reaction to the deflating real estate bubble may seem a little too familiar to some tech investors who recall a similarly stubborn stance he took in the early days when the Internet boom was headed for a bust.

In December 2000, Chambers was still calling for 50% annual sales growth despite a rash of gear-buying cutbacks and telco bankruptcies as the industry slid into a collapse.

The real estate boom may not turn into a complete bust, but investors aren't exactly waiting for more signs of trouble. Cisco shares sank 8% Thursday amid the second day of a broad selloff.

There's risk, and there is also opportunity says one analyst.

"If the U.S. economy sinks into recession and undoubtedly brings many of the other global economies down with it, the stock would have a hard time working," JPMorgan analyst Ehud Gelblum writes in a note Thursday.

"On the other hand, if the U.S. economy can avoid a recession, then throwing a resurging U.S. enterprise business in with the growth Cisco is seeing in the rest of its geographies and customer segments, should lead to re-accelerating growth," writes Gelblum, who rates Cisco a buy.

But if history is a guide and Chambers is running one way, it might be wise for investors to run the other.

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