Fri08222014

Business & Real Estate

Stocks tumble on weak earnings

The stock market correction finally arrived Friday when the Dow Industrials closed down 318 points. That is important because it has been more than two years since the last stock market correction. Investors fleeing from stocks are wondering whether this will be the end of the correction.

The stock market fall comes over weak corporate earnings of blue chip stocks like IBM Corp., Starbucks Corp, and McDonald’s Corp. At some point, companies will have to produce revenue growth to translate into real earnings before the market reaction turns positive.

Earnings-reporting season is in full swing and the near-term action deserves a closer look. Fourth-quarter results hold importance because they often come with guidance for the year ahead. The December reporting quarter is crucial because it tells you what the future holds for a company.

Last week’s drop also stems from worries about China’s manufacturing growth and China’s economic growth. Between China and earnings season, analysts have been looking for that long overdue correction and this is kindling the fire.

Expectations for the March quarter are modest, pointing to just 4 percent year-to-year growth. The market’s reaction to quarterly results is a great gauge for guidance.

Traditional Town Crier “50” titans such as Hewlett-Packard Co. (HPQ; $28.88), IBM Corp. (IBM; $178.87), Microsoft Corp. (MSFT; $36.27) and Oracle Corp. (ORCL; $36.68) have struggled with earnings in the latest quarter and should be drawing attention.

Some companies have grown so big that their acquisitions barely move the needle, while others face threats from nimble startups that offer cloud-based software. These new cloud-based software companies undercut the bulky, lucrative contracts that once assured the giants steady income and growth.

Without improved signs of profit growth, your favorite stock may have trouble making headway, so keep a close eye on the market and the next hundred companies that report earnings for the December quarter.

One Town Crier “50” stock is reasonably priced but reported a loss for the December quarter:

• IBM is a large and diversified tech company whose stock is widely held by institutions and everyday investors. You could spend hours breaking down the business of IBM, but it is still a company that generates more than $100 billion in annual revenue through the many services it offers. However, earnings determine stock prices.

After the market closed Jan. 21, the company reported its quarterly revenue, recording its steepest drop in more than four years. The results immediately lowered the Dow Jones industrial average because of the vast holdings throughout the market.

Fourth-quarter results for the firm revealed earnings of $6.13 per share on $27.8 billion in sales, short of the $28.25 billion analysts had expected. Cloud and software services continued to help IBM’s hardware business, but systems and technology revenue plunged 26 percent over a year to $4.3 billion.

IBM’s fourth-quarter revenue dropped 5.5 percent below expectations, and the hardware group’s revenue fell 27 percent. The stock price has tumbled, with some analysts dropping their target price to $175.

Reports circulated that IBM was trying to divest its x86 server segment, with both Dell and Lenovo reported to express interest. Last week Chinese PC maker Lenovo Group agreed to buy IBM’s low-end server business for $2.3 billion. The sale will allow IBM to focus on more profitable software and services.

Essentially, IBM is unable to grow, and it is using its buyback program to drive earnings growth. With the business in decline, there are times when the buyback is not enough. Free cash flow was down 16.7 percent year-over-year to $15 billion.

An analyst at J.P. Morgan Chase recommended that investors take profits from the stock, because there are limited catalysts that could boost investor sentiment.

Clyde Noel is a Los Altos Hills resident and longtime investor in stocks. A strong supporter of IBM, he has shares in his retirement program.

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