Investors hoping to see Cisco (CSCO) reignite the growth rockets may not get their spark tonight.
The San Jose, Calif., networking gearmaker is expected to post solid fiscal fourth-quarter numbers after the market's close Tuesday. Cisco's stock has been on a roll, having hit a 52-week high last week.
Ears on Wall Street will perk up when CEO John Chambers takes center stage. With the information-technology industry still struggling to emerge from three years in the doldrums, Chambers' comments on a postclose conference call will likely drive Wednesday's trading.
Some observers warn against expecting too much, though. Recent comments from Cisco's rivals suggest an IT-spending recovery remains a ways off. Meanwhile, Cisco itself is heading into what is historically its toughest quarter saleswise. A forecast consistent with that record could give tech watchers a less-than-dazzling view of the coming months.
"Cisco sets the tone," says C.E. Unterberg Towbin analyst Mark Sue, who has a neutral rating on the stock. On Monday, Cisco rose 7 cents to $19.22.
The stock's recent rise indicates that investors are mostly shrugging off the ever-present slowdown fears. The Street's swelling confidence comes in part from Cisco's sustained dominance of the Internet equipment market, and in part from its potential to cash in on any spending upturn.
Some analysts, such as SG Cowen's Christin Armacost, see big opportunity there. She said Monday that new products, new businesses and renewed telecom spending have
primed the pump for sales growth. Armacost, who raised her rating to strong buy, says annual sales growth could reach 15% in the coming years.
Armacost isn't alone in her optimism. Last month, Buckingham Research analyst Gina Sokolow
beat the gong loudly when she discovered that some $10 billion in government deals could be in Cisco's pipeline.
But despite the cheer, some doubts persist.
After the tech boom era's speculative buying and colossal overbuilding ended, so too did Cisco's days of 50% yearly growth. In fact, after sales stagnated for a year, the company actually saw sequential top-line declines for the past two quarters -- a company first.
And though Cisco has managed to increase market share in its core markets and hold steady on prices -- yielding fabulous 70% gross margins -- the company has yet to bag the most elusive prize: growth.
"With Cisco, it's not about what they did in the previous quarter -- it's always about what they will do this quarter," says Sue, whose firm has done no banking with Cisco. Sue says Cisco will likely "endorse repeatable results." In other words, the company will project flat profits and sales, terms tech investors aren't likely to celebrate.
Meanwhile, rivals continue to struggle. Last month, networking rival
said its three-quarter sales growth streak would probably end, as it guided for flat third-quarter results. Juniper located much of the upcoming problem in Europe. Meanwhile, staggering telecom equipment competitors
both declined to offer any financial projections when they reported earnings recently.
Analysts are expecting Cisco to post fourth-quarter earnings of 15 cents a share on revenue of $4.7 billion -- a 2% sequential increase, and a 2% slide from the year-ago period. But with the company coming off its traditionally strongest quarter and now heading into its weakest, impatient Cisco watchers may have to keep their growth streak hopes on ice.
"The first quarter is the most challenging for Cisco," says Sue. "It begins with the weakest month, August, making the quarter more back-end loaded than usual. They have to make it up in September and October."
Beyond the numbers, investors will also be keen to hear how the acquisition of Wi-Fi gearmaker
contributes to the business. And, as always, Wall Street will be eager to learn if Cisco's 70% gross margins can be sustained, despite the addition of lower-margin products and slack demand for computer networking gear.
Any sputtering or misfiring could put the tech sector back in low orbit for a while.