is likely to report just what Wall Street expects when the company dishes up January quarter results Thursday afternoon. But it probably can't deliver what the market really wants: reason to push the shares higher.
Dell shares, which are flat year to date based on Wednesday's close of $33.69, remain stuck at levels reached last fall. Though the stock managed to spike up past the $36 level in October and again last month, it proved unable to hold onto those gains.
Few would rule out the potential for PC powerhouse Dell to sneak in an upside surprise in the latest round of earnings. But this time around, it would certainly run contrary to the prevailing expectations on the Street.
Most analysts think Dell will meet consensus estimates and do no better. The current Thomson First Call forecast is for the company to earn 28 cents per share on sales of $11.5 billion for the quarter ending in January.
Among negative factors in the quarter, perhaps the biggest is that Dell is expected to report a slight shortfall in its guidance for 25% year-over-year unit growth. In the quarter ending in December, market research suggests Dell saw only 20% unit growth, according to Merrill Lynch.
"What we're hearing is that units came in a little weaker than expected because
Hewlett-Packard picked up market share," said Patrick Adams, manager of the
Choice Long-Short fund, which has no position in the shares. "I think to try to get back share, they've been pretty aggressive in terms of price."
In that vein, several analysts noted that Dell had been rolling out promotions like 0% financing for 90 days, along with free shipping, hard drive upgrades and other incentives.
Dell may have been responding to tougher competition from
, which posted 16% sequential growth in the fourth quarter vs. Dell's growth of 10%.
Within Dell's flagship PC division, which accounts for around 80% of sales, slight softness in corporate desktop and notebook sales likely offset strength in Europe, Asia Pacific and the U.S. consumer markets, noted Goldman Sachs.
Among other constricting factors in the quarter, prices for components like flat-panel displays stayed firm, limiting potential margin gains.
Looking forward, analysts expect the company to deliver in-line guidance of 28 cents in earnings and $11.2 billion in sales for the April quarter.
Goldman predicted the company can notch year-over-year unit growth above 20% for the seventh quarter in a row in the April quarter. As for the conference call scheduled to take place after the Thursday close, Goldman analyst Laura Conigliaro predicted Dell's comments on enterprise demand will be "encouraging, probably falling somewhere between
earnings conference call commentary, which was noticeably more positive than prior statements from the company, and
, which was similar but not quite as bullish."
Since Dell's stock price has tended to follow its upward sales trajectory, she thinks the stock could see 15% appreciation over the intermediate term. Analysts expect about 15% revenue growth in the fiscal year that ends in January 2005. Goldman has an outperform rating on the shares; it hasn't done recent investment banking for Dell.
Meanwhile, downside is likely to be fairly limited since Dell shares haven't appreciated much lately. "I'd love to see the stock up a couple more dollars, then I think it'd be an easy short for at least 10%," said Adams. "But I'm not sure how much the stock will come off from these levels."