Doubting Fund Managers Don't See Microsoft Earnings as Window of Opportunity - TheStreet

Yes,

Microsoft

(MSFT) - Get Report

posted good quarterly results Wednesday and yes, the stock jumped on Thursday. But it'll probably take more than that to make many money managers fall in love again.

The software juggernaut

posted first fiscal-quarter earnings on Wednesday that beat analysts' estimates by a nickel. The perennially conservative shop even said it sees brighter results down the road and the stock was up more than 17% by midday Thursday.

But between slumping PC sales, which can put a serious crimp in Microsoft's sales, and the firm's ongoing antitrust battle, it seems money managers won't be charging back to the bellwether stock. They've been selling their shares in recent years.

"It was a good quarter, but not a great quarter. More of a relief than anything else after so many warnings

from other PC-related tech shops like

Intel

(INTC) - Get Report

and

Dell

(DELL) - Get Report

," says Alan Loewenstein, co-manager of the $2.8 billion

(NTTFX)

John Hancock Technology fund. "They came in with good numbers but part of it was due to investment income that can't necessarily be repeated."

Loewenstein, who calls his fund's 1% Microsoft stake a "minimum" position, thinks the firm's new

Windows 2000

software suite will probably see higher sales in 2001 as corporate PC spending recovers from a post-Y2K slump. But he also says there are stronger growth stories elsewhere in the sector without the dark cloud of government litigation.

Judging from funds' trading, some managers' New Tech or Net-centric favorites are shops like

JDS Uniphase

(JDSU)

,

Veritas Software

(VRTS) - Get Report

and

Juniper Networks

(JNPR) - Get Report

. The

New Tech vs. Old Tech battle has heated up lately.

Even with Thursday's jump, Microsoft stock is still more than 49% off its 52-week high, according to

Morningstar

.

"The financials weren't that great -- I think they showed 8% top-line growth -- and some of the investment returns weren't expected," says Joseph Beaulieu, the Morningstar stock analyst who covers Microsoft. "The stock is up today and that sounds great, but I don't see a rapid return to where the stock was a few months ago. This quarter was not the start of the turnaround and it won't bring the pros back. I wouldn't be surprised if some who are frustrated with Microsoft use this as a chance to lighten their load."

If growth managers are selling, that's a familiar stance. Despite its tumble, Microsoft was still a 2.5% position in the

S&P 500

, the benchmark or yardstick for many big-cap growth funds. For fund managers, not owning any Microsoft is a big risk -- if its shares take off like they have today, they can push a fund behind its benchmark in a hurry. Still, as of Sept. 30, the percentage of large-cap growth funds owning the shares has tumbled from a whopping 93% to 75%, according to Morningstar.

While many funds still own it, some managers have taken a bold step and avoided its shares altogether. It's easy to see why they might look elsewhere, given the stock's falling star on Wall Street. Before today's jump, the stock had lost more than half its value since Jan. 1, according to

Baseline

.

As you might imagine, it takes a lot of selling to sink the shares of a stock like Microsoft. One of the biggest sellers appears to be none other than

Fidelity

-- the nation's largest fund shop, where stock managers are known for their skill at picking tech stocks.

At the end of the first quarter, Fidelity was the largest institutional holder of Microsoft shares, but that changed in the second quarter when the firm reduced its position by a third, selling more than 66 million shares according to

bigdough.com

, a Web site that tracks institutional stock ownership.

One way to woo back the pros would be for Microsoft.net, the firm's big foray into Web-based software, to take off.

"I think if Microsoft.net takes off, Wall Street will forgive the antitrust case," says Morningstar's Beaulieu. But he doesn't see any consensus on the effort's success before 2002.