The sheer terror those three words can inspire rivals just about any fear in this business -- and I'm not even long Mister Softee!
That's why, when Jeff shouted intraday that Microsoft had called a conference call after the close, I shuddered and shivered, worried that, after all of our tech purging of the last few weeks, we still had too much exposure to personal computers. What happens if 'Soft confirms that PCs are slow, I thought to myself? What happens if they admit that some computer companies have too much inventory or that others "stuffed the channel" with merchandise to get it off their books? The thoughts circled through my head as I watched the stock drop like a stone from 163 to 161 3/4.
"Wait a second," I said aloud, regaining my composure. "How do we know it is not positive? How do we know that things aren't great at 'Soft? How do we know that this isn't the call that turns around tech?" As I spoke, the stock seemed to lift through to 162, as if on cue, gaining three-quarters of a point in a straight line.
Jeff noted that the reason for the call was a product delay and there was no way that could be good news. Suddenly the 162 bids seemed to disappear, and the stock was sinking right back to 161.
Too pessimistic, I said. This is Microsoft you are talking about. Not
or some other ne'er-do-well. "They might announce that things are smoking in personal computers, and who cares about the
delay. It won't hurt numbers." And wouldn't you know it, the 162 offerings start getting taken just as I spoke the bull case.
Then Jeff said the words that I knew would define this
call. "If they defend the stock, they take away the upside. Stock can't be at 160 plus without something left unsaid, unspoken for when the actual quarter gets reported. To keep the stock up here they may have to eliminate the surprise!" Boom, the stock, as if by magic, heeded Jeff's realistic call and settled in at about 160, where it parked itself ahead of the conference call.
Indeed, in the bizarre world that is 1999 Wall Street, you want companies to be able to do just enough reassuring to preclude negative comments, but not so much that numbers can't be raised after the quarter. That's got to be saved for the formal number-bump postearnings release that gets stocks going higher.
That's a tightrope, a balancing act, only a few companies, even companies as great as Microsoft, can walk. If something slips in one business, then the reserve that the company might have kept quiet about to beat Street numbers may have to be mentioned, if not hyped, just to calm jittery holders.
And so it went. The stocks went out virtually unchanged, as the tug between the optimists and the pessimists yielded nothing more than a stalemate. Sure enough, after the close, Microsoft put on a very reassuring face during the call -- even as
was doing the
opposite with its quarter -- and the spin control seemed to work.
While the product might be late, there are enough good things happening that nobody has to cut numbers. When the call was over nobody was whacking the 160 bid in
as we walked out of the office. But nobody was taking the stock either, because MSFT took a lot of the upside away with its reassurances. You can't rebottle that stuff or repackage it to make us surprised when the quarter gets reported.
Jeff was right; the upside to the stock had been diminished by the call. In fact, now it seemed hostage to whether people got short the stock ahead of the call and must now cover because numbers don't have to come down. What a weird no-man's land.
In fact, when Jeff and I chatted on the phone on the way home, we realized that we were more worried about whether
Rick Sherlund was worried about Microsoft than whether Microsoft was worried about Microsoft, because Sherlund had seemed "tough" on the call. The Goldman software analyst is so powerful that it is not enough to trust our own ears; we need to hear what Sherlund says about the same call we listened to ourselves to be sure we are out of the woods.
Yes, tech is so skittish, so crazed right now, that we just called each other at home to discuss what prospective effect Sherlund's potentially cautious comments about Microsoft's comments might have on personal computers -- that is, if he is cautious at all!
Things are simply so uncertain in personal computers that we can't leave any nuance to chance. I doubt that this call solved any of the issues that continue to befuddle tech, and Microsoft did admit that some personal companies were stuffing the channel to make their numbers. Jeff noted that Sherlund couldn't have liked hearing that.
Which is why, in the end, I like other areas besides tech. Areas like the banks. Jeff and I don't have to sit there and fret and worry and call each other and hold each other's hands about bank earnings. No surprise conference calls in that sector. No worries about whether the Rick Sherlund of banks might go negative -- because there isn't a Sherlund in the group. The stocks are speaking for themselves. And that's just where I want to be.
wrote "Oracle Beats Estimates" as a headline tonight. I am neither long nor short it, but as I said on the
call, this wasn't an upside surprise by any means. And the stock seems headed lower.
James J. Cramer is manager of a hedge fund and co-founder of TheStreet.com. At the time of publication, the fund was long Yahoo!, but positions can change any time. Under no circumstances does the information in this column represent a recommendation to buy or sell stocks. Cramer's writings provide insights into the dynamics of money management and are not a solicitation for transactions. While he cannot provide investment advice or recommendations, he invites you to comment on his column by sending an email to firstname.lastname@example.org.