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TheStreet Open House

Palo Alto Networks' Coast Is Not Clear

Stocks in this article: PANWCSCOFTNTFIRECHKP

NEW YORK ( TheStreet) -- Wall Street has a funny way of being "conveniently cautious" in the way it evaluates growth stories. While some companies can seemingly do no wrong, even amid poor profits, as long as revenue remains impressive, others find themselves in the proverbial "doghouse" with one false move. And this seems to be the case with enterprise security company Palo Alto Networks (PANW), whose stock has been down by as much as 30% since a brutal May quarter.

Although the shares have rebounded slightly, up 14% over the past three months, Palo Alto has lost 35% of its value over the trailing 12 months. On Monday, however, following a better-than-expected fourth-quarter performance, during which revenue soared 49% year-over-year, investors received a glimpse of the promise that once elevated Palo Alto to "darling" status. But does it mean everything is back to "normal?"

I'm not saying that 49% growth is not impressive. I've followed this company long enough to know that growth has never been the problem. You see, when compared to larger rivals like Cisco (CSCO) and Fortinet (FTNT), Palo Alto does more than hold its own in terms of technology. In fact, I believe the company has pioneered -- what I believe to be -- next-generation security. Nonetheless, the company's ability to grow profits remains a concern.

So although the stock is up slightly following Monday's fourth-quarter report, I can't say that earnings-per-share of 6 cents (excluding costs), which was in-line with estimates, is all that impressive. Plus, let's not forget that Palo Alto management had issued brutal guidance in the May quarter, which sent the stock tumbling down 15%, fueling merger and acquisition discussions.

Essentially, even with the downbeat guidance issued in May, that the company only managed to meet lowered expectations should be reason for some anxiety, if not outright concern. I don't want to overstate what this means, especially since Palo Alto is still a relatively young company. But on the heels of a profit miss in the May quarter, a meaningful sequential improvement would have gone a long way to keep the bears at bay.

Another issue is Cisco, which recently picked off anti-hacking giant Sourcefire (FIRE) in a $2.7 billion deal. To be brief, it was an expensive transaction that values Sourcefire at 12 times revenue. Not strapped for cash, Cisco could afford some luxuries. But this deal wasn't just about extravagance. Cisco is going after Palo Alto's market position. For that matter, I don't believe either Fortinet or Check Point (CHKP) are safe.

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