High Expectations Still Haunt Intuitive Surgical

NEW YORK (TheStreet) -- I've become somewhat perplexed witnessing what has gone on with shares of Intuitive Surgical (ISRG), which are down 8% following what was on balance a strong fourth-quarter performance.

In odd fashion, investors cheered when management preannounced its results, advising that revenue was going to be down 5% for the quarter. The stock shot up as much as 7% -- only to see the shares get punished mercilessly when management released the actual results just days later. This makes absolutely no sense. The surprise was gone. This reaction goes back to what I said three months ago about the level of irrationality that remain with this company.

In the November article, I said:

Given the tone of this article, investors will likely be upset and I understand that. But I've never been one to chase a growth story, especially when it seems too good to be true. But there's no one to blame for willfully ignoring the warning signs, many of which Intuitive have provided.

That said, I do believe these shares will rebound. It's just not going to happen right away. There are plenty of operational issues management must first address. Not the least of which has to do with the wellbeing of customers who use their products. As with St. Jude Medical (STJ), Intuitive is operating under a warning letter from the Food and Drug Administration. But unlike St. Jude, Intuitive shares are now feeling the pressure.

At the risk of sounding like I'm tooting my own horn, it looks as if I was spot on. Look, it's not Intuitive's fault that the Street has had a love affair with its stock. Known for its daVinci surgical robots, which has dominated areas like the prostatectomy market, this company has been one of the cleanest growth stories in med-tech space. There's no disputing that.

My problem has always been with those who claim that "valuation doesn't matter." The more growth this company provided, expectations went higher. To its credit, over the past couple of years, Intuitive has delivered the goods. The stock has been gainfully rewarded, climbing from $100 in 2009 to $583 last year. All of a sudden, valuation matters.

The Street is now trying to reconcile whether "there is a future" for robot-assisted surgery, which is absurd. It's true that Intuitive's revenue was down 5% year over year. But the company actually beat the consensus revenue estimate by 4.5% ($576 million vs. $551 million estimated). The Street has also conveniently forgotten that there was a 32% decline in the October quarter. So, on a sequential basis, revenue was actually up close to 16%.

On an operational basis, I will grant that the $4.28 in earnings was a tad below last year's level. But here, too, according to some estimates of $3.83 per share, this was a solid beat of close to 12%. To that end, it seems misguided to suspect there's no future for robot-assisted surgery, especially when sales for the daVinci robotic surgery system, which accounts for close to 50% of Intuitive's revenue, jumped 6% in the quarter.

The other thing is, although the company didn't sell as many daVinci robots as it did in last year's quarter, the government-imposed restrictions from the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare) has had a lot to do with that. The results from Stryker (SYK) and to a lesser extent St. Jude corroborate that notion. So there are plenty of reasons to attribute some of the disappointment -- if you can call it that -- to being beyond the company's control.

It seems I'm now defending this company after having told investors three months ago to be careful. I was right. But the difference today is, the cat is out of the bag, so to speak. With hospitals beginning to adjust their spending priorities, the Street has no choice but to appraise this stock more fairly going forward.

Now, we can debate as to whether Intuitive's valuation, which is still higher than Johnson & Johnson (JNJ) and Medtronic (MDT), is deserved. Growth has slowed, yes. But there's still plenty of potential with this company. You just have to be realistic about what you're likely to get for the price you're willing to pay today.

At the time of publication, the author held no position in any of the stocks mentioned.

This article represents the opinion of a contributor and not necessarily that of TheStreet or its editorial staff.

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