HP Earnings: Whitman Gets a B

PALO ALTO, Calif. ( TheStreet) -- Cool, calm and collected are three words that have not been associated with HP ( HPQ) over the last few months.

That may be starting to change after new CEO Meg Whitman gave a composed performance during her first quarterly conference call since taking over from the ousted Leo Apotheker.

HP beat Wall Street's revenue and profit estimates with its fourth-quarter results, released after market close on Monday, and gave muted guidance for fiscal 2012. Whitman's debut, however, is getting as much scrutiny as the company's numbers.
HP CEO Meg Whitman

Whereas her predecessor attempted to push through a controversial growth strategy, potentially carving off HP's vast PC business, Whitman struck a more measured tone during her first conference call.

The new CEO explained that HP must get "back to basics" in executing its core business fundamentals, admitting that the tech giant struggled in this area during fiscal 2011.

Whitman also vowed to increase the company's investment in R&D, a clear nod to critics who have urged the tech giant to ramp up its innovation engine.

HP boosted R&D spending by 10% in fiscal 2011, according to Whitman, who promised to increase the outlay again in the coming fiscal year.

Already, there have been some hints of HP's improving innovation story. Earlier this month, for example, HP became the first major server vendor to support low-power ARM ( ARMH) chips. The company also launched the Folio recently, its first super-thin Ultrabook aimed at business users.

As expected, the former eBay ( EBAY) chief, also reset earnings expectations for 2012, and skipped giving a revenue forecast on Monday, shrewdly shifting the focus back onto the firm's profits.

With investors still coming to terms with Apotheker's shock $10.3 billion acquisition of U.K. software maker Autonomy, Whitman also promised no major acquisitions during the coming year.

Overall, Whitman gets a strong 'B' for her performance on Monday, successfully positioning herself as a safe pair of hands who will not surprise shareholders, and, crucially, sees HP's shortcomings.

"We just need to get back to putting our heads down and get out of the news cycle and reduce the drama here," she explained, during the conference call, acknowledging the confusion that swirled around the company this summer. "There was a lot of drama in 2011."

Investors, though, should still approach the company with caution, say analysts.

"We believe Meg is good for HP and we felt she handled last night's call very well, however, we believe the darkening macro back drop, fundamental challenges in key business segments and HP's unusually high exposure to Europe will test the patience of investors over the next year," explained Brian White, an analyst Ticonderoga Securities, in a note.

Europe accounted for around 36% of HP's fourth-quarter revenue, and Whitman has acknowledged the macroeconomic headwinds on the other side of the Atlantic.

"I don't think anyone knows what's going to happen in Europe," she said on Monday, pointing to the continent's ongoing debt crisis.

"Management expects to face continued macro-economic challenges in addition to headwinds in the consumer market, printer channel inventory, PC supply chain, and in the proprietary server business," said Jayson Noland, an analyst at Robert W.Baird. "We believe a reset was the 'right call' but don't see a reason to get bullish on the shares currently."

Just two months into her new job, however, Whitman is already receiving high marks from TheStreet's readers. Some 60% of the respondents to a recent poll said that they are confident of her ability to turn the company around.

Shares of HP, which have slumped more than 38% during 2011, dipped $1.09, or 4.06%, to $25.77 on Tuesday.

- Written by James Rogers in New York.

>To follow the writer on Twitter, go to http://twitter.com/jamesjrogers.

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