MORNING BID – Microsoft, up from the ashes

Apr 24, 2014 13:22 UTC

Microsoft heads into tonight’s earnings report coming in on a high, having recently breached the $40 threshold for the first time in forever (it’s all Frozen references this week, folks). The company pushed past $40 a share in early April for the first time in nearly 14 years, and spent most of that time ensconced in a tight range between about $22 and $35 a share, depending on what the overall market was doing. It tanked in 2008 with everything else, and then spent the 2010-2012 period putting together a cumulative 13 percent price loss in the midst of a raging bull market, if evidence of its sad-sack status couldn’t be more apparent.

This year, though, the company’s been the beneficiary (along with the other “horsemen,” Cisco, Intel and Oracle) of a shift away from overvalued momentum-driven stocks towards cyclical technology stories. These are the types of companies that produce steady revenues even if they’re not doing anything but collecting on consistent upgrades of stuff that everybody needs and doesn’t really like. And really, the company had a stranglehold over PC operating systems that it defended aggressively, let’s not kid ourselves.

For what seems like the better part of a decade, the company has also been talking about how it plans on getting ahead for the next technological leap happening around it. Personal computer sales are bound to be slack, because people aren’t buying those and they’re now buying tablets. But hope springs: CEO Satya Nadella plans on taking analyst questions on the conference call, which isn’t the usual thing for Microsoft.

Sometimes changes in strategic direction mean something for real, and even though analysts at times are overly obsequious and eager to please their corporate overlords (“Congrats on the quarter, guys”), they’re still the voice of someone outside the company and therefore aren’t as likely to be blowing smoke. The company’s planning on focusing more on mobile apps and cloud computing in coming years – probably the right choice, given the trend in computer technology at the moment – but the question is whether they can truly capitalize or not.

News from March showed the firm plans on debuting an Office version for the iPad. That put a charge into the stock and would be something of a game-changer; the stock is now the fourth-best in the Dow this year, up 6.8 percent. Starmine’s earnings quality score has been pretty darned high for the company for three years running.

Free cash flow is generally increasing, it’s been paying more and more dividends every year, and they even think the company’s being underestimated by the market, with the $40 or so price assuming a 4.4 percent annual growth rate over the next decade, whereas Starmine sees growth at 6.6 percent, in line with the five-year historical average – which should make it worth nearly $48 a share.

Again, though, that implies an avenue for growth. The Windows division isn’t it. This mega-division posted between $18.68 billion and $18.84 billion in revenue every year for four years running, falling from 30 percent of overall revenue to 24 percent (and that’ll keep shrinking). Again, something to be said for consistency here (for you dividend folk), but that isn’t “growth.” (It’s not “shrinking,” either, so there’s that, too.) Business solutions carries about 1/3 of revenue – and that’s been steady. But the gains may be more likely in the server/tools division, or entertainment/devices for any real traction to be gained. So look to the cloud, Microsoft.

MORNING BID – A week overflowing with earnings

Apr 21, 2014 13:00 UTC

Markets head into a busy week of earnings with a bit of uncertainty around whether the major companies out there will help continue the momentum in the stock market that was regained last week after some weeks of lackluster trading.

As put in Reuters’ Wall Street Weekahead, there’s something for everyone this week, from the old-line tech companies like Microsoft that have been the recent beneficiary of the switch away from the high-flying names like Netflix and Facebook (which also report this week) to some big industrial names like General Motors – which has plenty of its own issues with the recall – to Dow components like AT&T and McDonald’s.

So far, earnings have been a mixed bag. There have been some good results from a few Wall Street banks, weak numbers from others, and results out of the likes of IBM and Google that fell short of expectations as well. The fact that old tech names like Microsoft and Cisco are up on the year even as the Twitters of the world are down on the year does suggest more attention to alpha generation in a way that didn’t exist in 2013.

With that in mind strategists for the most part have been trying to point more specifically to stocks that appear undervalued or at least less-loved by the analyst community. Three of those reporting this week are Microsoft, DuPont and Travelers, which Credit Suisse quantitative strategists identified as contrarian picks as analysts in general have been more enamored themselves of the momentum stocks that carried the day in 2013.

All three of those, as well as a few others, will report in a week that will see about one-third of S&P 500 names report for the quarter. But what will be interesting again to see (and here we are again in the equity market looking ahead to the future) is whether second-quarter growth figures recede or if they’ve hit a trough earlier than is usual, which may be happening. After Friday’s spate of generally strong results, second quarter year-over-year earnings growth estimates ticked up to 8.1 percent from 8.0 percent. That’s still down from 8.4 percent at the beginning of April, and much more than on January 1, but if it represents the nadir for this period, that’s a good sign for those concerned about long-term growth in stock prices and for economic demand.

A number of sectors have seen a generalized improvement in their estimates (consumer discretionary stocks are still seeing estimates cut), which points at least to optimism going forward. Dan Greenhaus of BTIG notes that a handful of notable names have seen strong year-over-year revenue growth including Baker-Hughes, United Rentals, Pepsico, and Sandisk. The latter cuts against the grain of those forecasting weak results from companies with large Chinese exposure.

Make no mistake, earnings will dominate the week. Here are a few other names coming to whet one’s appetite: Gilead Sciences, Amgen, Alexion, and Celgene, all biotech names that have been favorites at one time or another, and of course Apple, the largest U.S. company by market value. If year-over-year expectations improve by the end of the week, that’s certainly a promising sign for the current quarter we’re living in.

MORNING BID – Microsoft and opportunities

Jan 23, 2014 14:01 UTC

The parade of earnings releases continues Thursday, with bellwethers ranging from McDonald’s to Microsoft on tap. Discount airline Southwest was out before the bell, and Starbucks, Intuitive Surgical and Federated Investors are all due after the closing bell.

The technology industry’s equivalent of a boring utility, Microsoft is more of a candidate for lively activity this time around, as the software giant looks for a new chief executive, a task many investors had expected to be done by now. The company’s sales of its Windows product are expected to have been weak in the fourth quarter and its new Xbox also left some people nonplussed.

How much a new CEO is worth to a company is debatable. Those that look good from an initial glance can turn into a Ron Johnson-at-J.C. Penney-style disaster, while less-heralded types can do a lot without great fanfare. Either way, buying or selling the stock based on such an announcement is the functional equivalent of grading a football team’s draft picks on the day of the draft.

Whomever ends up taking on the job might be looking at an interesting opportunity. The stock, which seems condemned to forever trade between $28 and $36 a share, looks undervalued from Starmine’s perspective, which puts an intrinsic value of about $44 on the shares. The company falls squarely inside a theme Goldman Sachs has been noting for some months – if capital expenditures pick up in 2014, Microsoft is one of those companies that would be expected to spend more money.

It has, on balance, shown pretty high returns on invested capital over the years, but of late, it’s been spending less. Goldman puts the ratio of its capex spend to depreciation at 4.8, compared with a five-year average of 7.5. It’s been too content, instead, to reduce its share float, gobbling up shares through buybacks, paying big dividends to investors, and little else. Additional buyback authorizations would be a surprise for this report after a big one in September, but any commentary on that is probably welcomed.

Even in a world where stocks far and wide are outstripping what many investors see as what they’re worth, Microsoft stands out: A forward price-to-earnings ratio of 13, lower than the overall market’s 15-and-change and below the company 10-year median of 13.6.

That’s a median that encompasses some leaner years for the Redmond, Wash.-company, but the overall profile hasn’t changed too much. It’s managed to hold the line on margins as well, which is saying something, given expectations that margins have definitely topped out by now on an overall basis.

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