Baseball great Satchel Paige famously advised his contemporaries, "Don't look back, something might be gaining on you." But the market looks forward, not back, and what tech investors saw coming at them this week was mighty sobering.
Issue after issue posted strong quarterly earnings, but when it came time to serve up guidance, CFOs turned cautious and the market promptly cringed. In software, under-guiders included
, not to mention
tax-induced fourth-quarter stumble and
"In fact, it was across the board," says Daniel Morgan, portfolio manager for Synovus Investment Advisors, noting that
all fell short of analysts' forward expectations.
To be sure, there were exceptions,
, a longtime dweller of the dog house, continued its recovery with preannounced good news of both quarters , while
Advanced Micro Devices
wowed investors with another bravura performance.
That wasn't enough to keep techs from slipping this week, and analysts from uncovering more reasons to worry.
The wild volatility that tech shares have exhibited is an unsettling reminder of the spring of 2000, says Hilary Kramer, chief strategist at ANG Capital. "Look at the
Nasdaq Stock Market
, it was up $3.50 on terrific news and then drops 11% because of minor concerns that the integration of Instinet might cost a bit more than expected -- just irrational," she says.
Richard Williams, chief software analyst for ICAP, said "I think we're seeing a sharper slowdown than people realize. Sure, there's always a downshift going into the first quarter. But this year, it seems sharper than last year, or the year before, meaning the issue could be cyclical, not seasonal," he said.
Williams, who tends to be fairly bearish, also points to eroding prices and margins for some software companies, including Microsoft and the antivirus providers, as evidence that the sector could be in for a choppy ride.
Peter Cardillo, chief market analyst with S.W. Bach & Co., however, looked at the numbers and drew a different conclusion. "I think the worries over high oil prices are prompting very conservative guidance. No one wants to go out on a limb," he says. "Based on economic activity, techs aren't doing so badly." His bottom line for the first quarter: "The worries are exaggerated."
ANG's Kramer couldn't disagree more. "Oil is not the issue. It's concern that interest rates will continue to rise," she says. Rates going up, of course, drives up the cost of capital, and the cautious guidance for the beginning of the year reflects that, she said. Kramer also sees a speed bump in March as investors prepare for the tax season by taking some money off the table.
Morgan isn't ready to call a bad first quarter, but the mixed bag of results, he said, is prompting him "to reshuffle the cards. I'm looking at some big names in tech, and if they are just resting on the laurels of their past performance, I may well replace them," he said. He also chided Wall Street for ignoring signs that the economy weakened a bit in the fourth quarter, saying "analysts got ahead of themselves."
Finally, John Butters of Thomson Financial weighs in with this positive indicator: With about two-thirds of the technology components of the
reporting, the "negative-to-positive" ratio for guidance was at 1.7 on Friday, compared with its historic average of 2.1, as compiled by First Call. But he quickly reminded investors that the ratio applies only to EPS, so Intel's weak sales guidance isn't captured.
We'll get more clues next week when
reports, followed by
earnings the week after.
Big Blue's Russian Seed Corn
, which has already invested heavily in developing markets such as China and India, has begun seeding the market in Russia.
This week, the company announced a program to aid Russian developers by giving them free software, including an open-source version of it its flagship WebSphere Application Server and Db2database program, and access to a variety of educational resources that had never been available in their native language.
Why Russia? It's become a major front in IBM's battle to win developers to its platform, before they're locked in by rivals such as Microsoft and
, says IDC analyst Liz Tiley. The Russian software development community is growing at a compound annual rate of over 13%, compared with a worldwide rate of about 10%, and should hit the 1 million mark by 2008.
Although English is widely taught at the university level these days, many older developers, many in key positions, are not fluent, which is why IBM is putting significant muscle into Russian-language resources via a new Web portal called developerWorks, Tiley says.
IBM's hope, of course, is that Russian developers will become comfortable with its platform and begin to write applications to run on it, which will in turn spur sales of IBM's software, hardware and service offerings. "It's not an investment that pays an immediate return," says Tiley. "They're betting on future growth."