priceline.com ( PCLN) investors don't like to wait. That's why the name-your-own-price online travel outfit saw its shares drop 12% Monday morning. Despite meeting fourth-quarter earnings estimates and reiterating its 2002 full-year guidance, priceline took a beating after it said first-quarter financials would come in on the soft side. The reaction illustrates Wall Street's skepticism about predictions that late-year strength will overcome near-term weakness. Still, Monday's results and guidance don't suggest the company's turnaround efforts have stalled. Though its shares slipped 75 cents to $5.57, priceline remains some 175% above its September low. In the fourth quarter, priceline earned a penny a share on a pro forma basis, excluding certain expenses, on revenue of $235.3 million. On average, analysts expected the company to break even and generate $225.5 million in revenue, according to Thomson Financial/First Call. It was a strong quarter for the company, especially given the dire predictions for the industry in the wake of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. Yet investors clearly focused on the company's first-quarter financial guidance. priceline said it expects first-quarter earnings to range between breakeven and 2 cents a share, on revenue of $260 million to $290 million; Wall Street expects earnings of 2 cents on revenue of about $300 million. At the same time, priceline said it is comfortable with the current consensus estimate of 12 cents a share in earnings for the full fiscal year. But the market's reaction Monday suggests investors are taking that prediction with a grain of salt. priceline is one of many companies that has said near-term results are likely to fall shy of estimates, but that late 2002 numbers should show stronger growth and make up the difference. Yet only a few months ago the near-unanimous line from big tech companies was that financial visibility was lacking. priceline, based in Norwalk, Conn., once seemed headed for extinction, along with a myriad of other dot-coms that ran out of money. But the company, through aggressive cost-cutting that trimmed about $70 million annually from its budget, reversed its fortunes and turned a profit for the first time last July. Just last week the company said it was
teaming with online auctioneer eBay ( EBAY), perhaps the foremost success story on the Internet, to open an online travel store. It was the second recent link-up with an established Internet brand. In December, priceline said it reached a deal to sell travel products across several AOL Time Warner ( AOL)brands. While shares don't trade near their all-time high of around $150, the company is no longer close to collapse. Still, few on Wall Street are pushing the stock, mainly because of valuation concerns. At a market capitalization of roughly $1.5 billion, there is little room for the shares to rise, say analysts. And as investors' reaction Monday showed, even the hint that earnings expectations won't be met can send shares tumbling.