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Exec Departure Jabs Juniper

Shares tumble as COO Stephen Elop heads to Microsoft.

Juniper

(JNPR) - Get Juniper Networks, Inc. Report

shares slid 14% early Friday following the company's COO departure and an analyst downgrade.

The

Cisco

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Internet gear peer was dealt a big setback Thursday as No. 2 executive Stephen Elop announced he was moving on to run

Microsoft's

TheStreet Recommends

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Internet services business.

Elop's move comes at a tricky time for Juniper. The networking gearmaker had just started to regain momentum in its core business of selling big traffic management devices to telcos. And with Elop's help, Juniper was finally gaining some footing in the crucial business information technology market.

The departure also comes just two weeks ahead of Juniper's fourth-quarter earnings report. Observers are concerned that already sluggish spending by big U.S. businesses may be slowing further.

Citing a weakening economy and the surprise exit of Elop, JPMorgan analyst Ehud Gelblum downgraded Juniper to neutral from buy Friday.

"We believe the more uncertain macro economic, and thereby enterprise, environment coupled with the sudden departure of COO, Stephen Elop, who had been the company's primary architect of change, could translate into a slower operating margin progression over the next two years," Gelblum wrote in the note.

But UBS analyst Nikos Theodosopoulos doesn't see any immediate cause for alarm.

"We continue to believe Juniper will report a solid quarter and that the departure of Elop is not reflective of a weakening business outlook," Theodosopoulos -- who rates Juniper a neutral -- wrote in a note Friday.

Juniper was down $4.17 to $26.50 in recent trading.