Cisco Systems' (CSCO - Get Report) stock has held up pretty well during the recent tech correction, and is up 19% on the year with the help of a summer rally that followed a strong July quarter earnings report.
That spells somewhat higher expectations ahead of the networking giant's October quarter (fiscal first quarter) report. On average, analysts polled by FactSet expect revenue of $12.86 billion (up 6% annually) and non-GAAP EPS of $0.72 (up 18%).
In addition to its sales and earnings numbers, Cisco's annual product order growth, which is shared on its earnings call, tends to be closely watched. In August, the company reported product order growth improved to 7% in the July quarter from the April quarter's 4%.
Here are a few other things for investors to watch as Cisco reports after the close on Wednesday afternoon, and hosts an earnings call at 4:30 P.M. Eastern Time.
1. Enterprise Hardware Spending Trends
Cisco's enterprise product orders rose 11% annually in each of its last two quarters. A healthy enterprise IT spending environment has helped, as has a strong upgrade cycle for Cisco's Catalyst 9000 campus (office) switch family, which was updated this week at the Cisco Partner Summit conference to include a Wi-Fi controller and a relatively inexpensive switch.
Does Cisco expect enterprise demand to remain solid during the seasonally strongest time of the year? Many IT peers have delivered solid reports this earnings season, but a few have also noted that trade and interest rate worries have put some businesses on edge.
2. Service Provider Spending Trends
Cisco's service provider product orders, which have been pressured in recent years by soft telco capital spending trends and the company's relatively limited exposure to cloud giants that are rapidly growing their capex, was a surprising bright spot in the July quarter: They managed to rise 7%, after having dropped 4% in the April quarter.
CFO Kelly Kramer cautioned at the time that quarterly service provider orders are subject to the spending whims of a handful of major customers, and "could move around either way as we look forward." The start of 5G network rollouts should provide a boost in the coming quarters; mobile infrastructure partner Ericsson (ERIC - Get Report) offered upbeat comments about early 5G activity in October, as did some chip developers with mobile network exposure.
3. Software Growth
It's no secret that Cisco has been trying to grow its software exposure via both acquisitions and organic investments. In the July quarter, the company's "Applications" revenue rose 10% annually to $1.34 billion (10% of total revenue), and its deferred product revenue balance for software and subscriptions grew 23%.
For the October quarter, the consensus is for Applications revenue to grow 12% to $1.35 billion. Healthy demand for Cisco's comprehensive enterprise licensing agreements (ELAs) appears to be helping out, and so is good uptake for its DNA software platform, which lets companies deploying Catalyst 9000 switches set big-picture policies for how their networks function.
Overall, Cisco's recurring revenue, which also covers slower-growing services revenue streams, now accounts for 32% of its total revenue. Zev Fima, research analyst for Jim Cramer's Action Alerts Plus portfolio, which owns Cisco, argues that Cisco's revenue mix shift towards recurring revenue streams makes it "much more resilient" to a potential IT spending slowdown than companies relying solely on hardware sales.
4. Emerging Markets Trends
Cisco's emerging markets product orders were up a healthy 12% in the July quarter, with the BRIC economies plus Mexico rising 23%. Did order trends remain strong in the October quarter? A stronger dollar has been a headwind for many U.S. multinationals in emerging markets, and country-specific macro pressures have been witnessed in China and elsewhere.
5. Security Growth
Cisco's Security segment revenue, which covers both hardware and software, rose 12% in the July quarter to $627 million. For the October quarter, the consensus is for Security revenue to increase 11% to $648 million.
Cisco is just six weeks removed from closing a $2.35 billion deal to buy Duo Security, provider of a subscription-based software and services platform for authenticating user identities across devices. The company has also made a slew of other security acquisitions since Chuck Robbins became CEO in 2015.
6. Gross Margin Trends
Cisco's non-GAAP gross margin (GM) fell by 0.8 percentage points annually in the July quarter to 62.9%, as higher DRAM prices offset a mix shift towards higher-margin software and services revenue streams. For the October quarter, the company has guided for a non-GAAP GM of 63% to 64%, compared with a year-ago GM of 63.7%.
Tariffs on Chinese imports could potentially weigh on Cisco's margins in the near-term. On the other hand, as Fima notes, the recent moderation of DRAM prices following a strong two-year rally should provide a margin boost in the coming months.
7. Stock Buybacks
In February, not long after the arrival of tax reform, Cisco added $25 billion to its stock buyback program, raising its total authorization to $31 billion. The company then proceeded to spend $6 billion on buybacks during both its April and July quarters.
With Kramer having signaled in May that Cisco plans to use up its buyback authorization within 18 to 21 months, chances are that the company spent heavily on buybacks in the October quarter as well. Cisco had $46.5 billion in cash and investments at the end of its July quarter, and $25.6 billion in debt.