Microsoft earnings may test Street’s patience – USA TODAY
SAN FRANCISCO – Microsoft’s big makeover under CEO Satya Nadella continues to get tacit approval from investors, though the looming question is how long the storied tech company has before Wall Street’s patience runs thin.
Microsoft shares have pulled back 14% since a 52-week high of $50.05 in November as the company pursues a cloud-first, mobile-first strategy that includes revenue-impacting initiatives such as free upgrades to its Windows 10 operating system aimed at wooing iOS and Android fans. It’s still up 8% in the last year.
Other hurdles for the one-time software king are a 6.7% year on year decline in global PC sales, a strong U.S. dollar and the continuing shift to mobile and tablet-based communications.
The Redmond, Wash.-based company is scheduled to release its fiscal third-quarter results after the market closes Thursday. Analysts polled by FactSet expect Microsoft to earn 51 cents a share on revenue of $21.07 billion, compared to 68 cents per share on $20.40 billion a year ago. That would make a fifth straight quarter of year-over-year declines.
“There’s market share and then there’s revenue, but you certainly first need an audience to monetize,” says Colin Gillis, analyst with BGC Partners. “That will be Nadella’s test, to make sure the moves being made can be monetized in order to get them future traction.”
While admitting that investors may be growing weary of the earnings growth drought, FBR Capital Markets analyst Daniel Ives says “Windows 10 and the move to the cloud could be the one-two punch that gets Microsoft back into the game.”
In a February report, Sanford C. Bernstein & Co. analyst Mark Moerdler wrote that by shifting its Windows strategy, any short term losses could be offset by “increased adoption of Windows on mobile devices (that) will drive more revenue that is not tied to a PC refresh cycle.”
Of particular interest is seeing how Microsoft’s commercial division performed over the last quarter. In the previous quarterly report, commercial revenue grew only 5% to 13.3 billion, a miss that contributed to a big one-day tumble in the company’s stock.
A potential obstacle is the dollar’s recent surge against the euro, which has been flirting with near parity.
Some potential bright spots include Microsoft’s revamped Surface Pro 3 tablet, sales of which hit $1.1 billion at the end of the December quarter.
The company also is making a leap into augmented/virtual reality gaming with Hololens. Unveiled a few months ago, the device would allow Xbox fans to take their gaming to a new level while positioning Microsoft well in the coming AR/VR marketplace battle that Digi-Capital estimates could hit $150 billion by 2020.
“There’s definitely a different feel and flavor in Redmond now,” says Ives. “The company is starting to believe in itself, and it helps to have a leader who seems to be skating to where the puck is going.”
Under Nadella, Microsoft has looked to shed its reliance on traditional software (pushing aggressively into cloud-services with Azure), to attempt an entry into the smartphone market through its purchase of Nokia (a $7 billion acquisition that has hurt the bottom line and required layoffs), and to change its longstanding reputation as a stubborn pioneer that didn’t play well with others.
“There is a genuine culture shift going on at Microsoft as part of the company’s changes, and what’s unique is that usually those culture shifts happen afterwards,” says James McQuivey, analyst with Forrester Research.
McQuivey says that shift is critical to seeing the company through a difficult period where big profits are hard to come by.
“These are tough earnings quarters for them, because the news isn’t spectacular and there are no new dramatic revenue streams,” he says. “They’re getting a pass from investors, but the question is how many quarters will that good will be offered up? Nadella will have to test whether investors will wait until 2016.”
Ives says investors will be comfortable “with a bumpy ride for the rest of the year, but not a turbulent one. You need to start seeing the light at the end of the tunnel.”