Wall Street is betting


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can meet reduced consensus numbers for the first quarter, but second-quarter estimates seem bound for a haircut.

Many analysts cut their outlooks for the first quarter back in early March, after Intel

lopped off the top end of its sales outlook and raised the bottom end. At the time, the company forecast sequential sales to dip 5% to 8% to $6.6 billion to $6.8 billion.

Since then the mood in the industry has grown gloomier on news of

disappointing chip sales in February. Although monthly sales remained above last year's levels, the rate of growth has steadily declined in recent months.

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The sales report prompted one analyst to cut his first-quarter outlook for Intel to below consensus. Citing February's unexpectedly soft microprocessor market, A.G. Edwards analyst Brett Miller reduced his forecast to $6.6 billion in sales and 11 cents in EPS.

To be sure, most analysts think the chipmaker can deliver first-quarter results on target with consensus expectations for $6.7 billion in sales and 12 cents profit.

But there's little fodder for optimists looking forward, and it's now widely anticipated Intel will issue disappointing guidance for the second quarter.

While that would hardly be welcome news for investors, don't assume it's all Intel's fault. Instead, reserve some blame for the preternaturally hopeful analysts who have refused to tamp down their estimates amid a dimming macroeconomic picture.

Consensus estimates reflect the seemingly unrealistic assumption that the company could somehow manage to hold revenues and earnings flat, at $6.6 billion and 12 cents for the three-month period ending in June. Yet for six of the past seven years, the June quarter has posted a sequential sales decline averaging 3.2%, according to Lehman Brothers.

Analyst Dan Niles reckons Intel will guide down the midpoint of revenues by 2% to 3% from the prior quarter -- though, as a mild benefit, he thinks average selling prices could head higher in the period, helped along by relatively stronger sales of laptop chips and the launch of Centrino. (Lehman has a recent banking relationship with Intel.)

Like Lehman, Sanford Bernstein believes Intel is likely to guide down on second-quarter revenues. "Furthermore, we think the company will cite macro weakness that may generate some pessimism about PC unit growth," writes Adam Parker in a note.

Parker maintains Intel has excess capacity, which is likely to hurt gross margins, and that it needs to cut its payroll to bring it in line with reduced demand. "If the company announced a 7,500 to 10,000 employee headcount reduction we would be more optimistic about the stock," he says. (Sanford Bernstein does not do investment banking.)