Pentium III transition be behind the personal computer weakness? Or is there something secular -- the dreaded PC endgame -- lurking? The selloff in these stocks, in the wake of an acknowledged slowdown in personal computer spending, demands some answers because it is simply too profound a decline to ignore.
How do I know? Because it reached Sunday morning phone call status from Jeff Berkowitz. For three weeks Jeff has kept me out of these stocks as he detected weakness with an almost-other-worldly precision. But now everybody has seen the weakness, and with Friday's action we have reached the level of crescendo against personal computing tech. Everybody who wants to get out has gotten out. And now Jeff's making noises about wanting to get back in if we can quantify the reasons for the slowdown. But before we can get back in and take advantage of the 20%, 30% and, in some cases like
, 50% declines in the PC and PC-related segment, we have to figure out what could get PC spending going again.
First, we have to acknowledge that the
call on Friday amounted to an admission by analysts that the
-Compaq-Intel decline stems from some weakness in the system. In other words, that these stocks didn't come down just for the heck of it, but that there are reasons related to the business itself behind the selloff.
Last year we had a decline, and the reason for the decline was an inventory bulge. That's not the case this year. Inventories are not too inflated and nobody is saying the reason for the weakness is because there is too much supply in the pipeline.
So what are some of the reasons? Let's go through some choices. One potential answer lies in the Intel selling cycle. One of the great things that Tom Kurlak, the
chip analyst, taught us is that when Intel switches to a new chip it tends to freeze the market as customers stop buying the previous generation in anticipation of getting a more powerful PC Indeed, many of the shortfalls related to Intel have to do with this periodic transition. If this is the case, that's good news because Pentium III is here and shipping in volume. If you believe that the PC business had a momentary slowdown between Intel chips, you have to start buying now, although you have to be worried that Intel missed the quarterly estimates because of the transition (I don't know the answer here, and neither does anybody else to my knowledge.)
A second potential answer is that people bought so many PCs for Christmas that we are full up, and unless someone comes up with something that makes the PC better for the Internet, there is no reason to go out and buy a new PC. This reasoning is quite bearish, and if true, the stocks aren't done going down. We would have to wait for new innovations to jump-start the group.
A third answer is that PCs have reached the saturation that color TVs reached, and the industry never regained momentum. Remember Zenith? This strain of thought is positively Andromeda-like, and I don't want to believe it. In fact, though, if the Internet hadn't come along, we might have hit some saturation already, and the new Internet uses made the game strong again.
A fourth answer is that the lower-priced PCs and other appliances make it so the business may be too diffuse to play the traditional stocks. This answer can be found in this week's
, and it is compelling and maybe not doomsaying. However, if it is true, we can't buy the usual suspects at the bottom, and have to go after different plays.
How do we solve the puzzle? As always, this is where the myriad conferences and conference calls and messages from the companies are most important. Homework answers this question. To these ends, we are going to redouble our efforts with all of the PC companies to try to understand what caused the decline in the industry and the stocks. As we formulate answers, I will do my best to keep you abreast of our conclusions.
Random musings: Many thanks to my neighbors who brought a giant blow-up Rhino to my door in order to remind me of the need to have a thick-skin now that I have this public persona. I like the charging implications, too, and I don't mean credit cards.
James J. Cramer is manager of a hedge fund and co-founder of TheStreet.com. 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 email@example.com.