Updated from 7:58 a.m. ET
If you're a software investor looking for some good news, our condolences. For the rest of you, read on.
weak results and then having
lowered fiscal fourth-quarter guidance Thursday, investors are watching the rest of the software world to see which companies will issue profit or earnings warnings. The likely answer: probably most of the ones you're invested in.
"I think the appropriate response is to say that everyone's at risk of missing numbers this quarter," says George Santana, an analyst at
Wedbush Morgan Securities
. "At least, that's what the equity market is discounting right now, that everyone is going to miss." Santana couched that statement by saying that he didn't think the economy is as bad as some think, and that the recent selloff in software was likely a buying opportunity.
Software's harbinger for this coming season of discontent was Oracle. A day after its February quarter closed, the second-largest software company said it would miss consensus earnings expectations by 2 cents, and that its revenue would be short by, oh, a quarter of a billion dollars. On Thursday it
reported that it met those revised expectations. But in the face of the deteriorating economy, the software giant struggled to close deals during the last week of its February quarter.
Now, with most other software firms slumping toward the end of their March quarters, watch for that pattern to repeat.
"In terms of which companies have the highest probability of missing Street expectations, I'd put
right at the top of the list," said Jim Moore, an analyst with
Deutsche Banc Alex. Brown
who rates Ariba a buy. "They still have 75% or 80% of their quarter left to do." (Moore's firm has done underwriting for Ariba.)
An Ariba spokeswoman didn't return a call seeking comment.
Other companies that Moore sees at risk include
. (He rates both a buy, and his firm hasn't done underwriting for either.)
"I think we're in the same boat as everyone," says Brent Anderson, director of investor relations at i2. "We'll do our damnedest to make sure that we hit our plan, but we're obviously operating in an economy that's not where it was last year, and a more challenging environment overall."
A spokesman for Commerce One declined comment, citing its quarter-end quiet period mandated by the
Securities and Exchange Commission
Moore's not picking on those companies without reason. Ariba and Commerce One executives made cautious statements about their quarters at recent investment conferences. And i2 CEO Sanjiv Sidhu took the opportunity to
relay uncertainty about i2's quarter when it announced its planned acquisition of
From Moore's perspective, this is as bad for software as it's ever been.
"In 20 years in the software business, I've never seen demand dry up like this so precipitously," Moore says. "If this economy stays bad for another six months, these stocks could easily come down another 50% to 60%."
Ariba and Commerce One are already 90% below their 52-week highs, and i2 is off 79% from its 12-month peak. Oracle is down 66% from its respective top.
Other software companies that are on analysts' lists of potential warnings-issuers include
. That said, most analysts still have generally high hopes for the likes of
, which is on an April quarter and
reiterated its guidance recently for its March quarter.
But even if some companies do manage to get out of their March quarters unscathed, the rest of the year is anything but a given. Which is why, in some observers' eyes, these stocks have been sinking steadily for weeks with the rest of technology.
"I think the market's discounted any warnings we would have through the end of the year," says David Garrity, an analyst for
Dresdner Kleinwort Wasserstein
March quarter warnings are a nice idea, but the market's looking way beyond that at this point."
It's that sort of sentiment that has led analyst after analyst to lower revenue and earnings expectations across the software board. Which means that as software share prices have sunk, they haven't necessarily become less expensive, because the numbers they're judged against are smaller, too.
"We went through a painful process over the last few months of resetting multiples as we move to the historical PE-to-growth valuations in software land," says Deutsche Banc's Moore. "The next part of the torture is to reset growth rates and earnings expectations, which could further drag down
Take that as fair warning, before they come.