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Hewlett-Packard: Tech's Last Hope?

SAN FRANCISCO -- Hewlett-Packard (HPQ) has consistently outmaneuvered the competition and outpaced Wall Street's expectations.

But the specter of a slowing economy may prove a more formidable adversary for the Palo Alto, Calif., tech giant.

Investors will get a glimpse of how H-P is faring in its latest challenge when the company delivers its fiscal first-quarter earnings report after Tuesday's market close.

With H-P's stock down roughly 16% since mid-December, the Street is not giving H-P -- or any other large-cap tech stock for that matter -- much benefit of the doubt.

"People aren't looking at the bottom line. People are much more worried about the economy," says Shannon Cross, of Cross Research.

Whatever H-P says about its recently ended quarter will be less important to investors, she says, than what the company has to say about its view of business conditions going forward.

"The concerns out there, and the reason the stock is not responding, is people are waiting to see exactly how it plays out," says Cross.

Assuaging the Street's economic anxiety won't be easy.

During their respective quarterly earnings calls last month, fellow large-cap tech players IBM (IBM), Microsoft (MSFT) and Intel (INTC) all reported strong results, but saw little subsequent lift in their stock prices.

Indeed, the Street's expectations for the economy are so pessimistic that the so-far-so-good comments from companies are typically interpreted by investors as it's-only-a-matter-of-time.

H-P shares closed Friday's regular session up 61 cents, or 1.4%, to $43.87.

H-P does find itself better-positioned than many companies to confront a U.S. economic downturn: a large share of its business is overseas and the company is not overly reliant on customers in the ailing financial services sector.

Of course, H-P is exposed to consumer spending in its PC and printer business, two product categories that could suffer if consumers cut back on spending.

Industry research firm IDC reported strong PC sales in the fourth calendar quarter of 2007, with total unit shipments up 15.5% year-over-year. H-P, whose fiscal calendar runs one month behind many tech companies, will provide some key updates on how the PC market has held up since then -- and about its own near-term outlook.

Wall Street's expectations for H-P's recently ended fiscal first quarter are actually above the company's own guidance, calling for H-P to earn 81 cents a share on $27.6 billion in revenue (H-P projected 80 cents EPS with sales between $27.4 billion and $27.5 billion.)

H-P CEO Mark Hurd has a well-established conservative streak when it comes to financial guidance, which may account for his impressive track record: Since Hurd took the reins in March 2005, H-P has beat Wall Street expectations every quarter.

Goldman Sachs analyst David Bailey thinks H-P could beat Wall Street estimates by a penny or two in the fiscal first quarter, as the company continues to improve its operating margins across its business groups.

Goldman Sachs makes a market in H-P shares and has received compensation for investment banking and noninvestment banking services from the company in the past 12 months.

While Bailey points out in a recent note to investors that there is increasing evidence that corporate spending on information technology is cooling, he sees H-P as best prepared to weather the storm.

"No tech company is immune to a tech spending slowdown, but H-P has the most customer and geographic diversity in our group and continues to have multiple economically-independent cost cutting levers, which gives its earnings greater resiliency in a weaker macro environment," writes Bailey.

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