SEATTLE (Reuters) – Microsoft Corp will likely report the first annual sales dip in its history as a public company, but investors are looking beyond that for upbeat comments on Windows 7, signs of a tech sector recovery, and even a deal with Yahoo Inc to challenge Google Inc.
The question for investors when the world’s largest software company reports quarterly results on Thursday is whether it can present enough optimism to maintain the momentum that has pushed shares up 63 percent since early March.
Tech heavyweights IBM and Intel Corp ratcheted up expectations last week by blowing through Wall Street forecasts and setting ambitious outlooks that suggest the worst may be over for the sagging computer business.
Microsoft, whose software drives more than 90 percent of the world’s PCs, stands to benefit as it prepares to roll out its new Windows 7 operating system in October.
“There’s been a sentiment shift,” said Todd Lowenstein, a portfolio manager at HighMark Capital management. “People are starting to get excited now about the visibility of Windows 7 — it’s got good reviews and they’ve got some pent-up demand.”
“They’ve turned the corner in a lot of their businesses,” said Lowenstein, a manager of HighMark’s Value Momentum mutual fund, which holds about 530,000 Microsoft shares.
Aside from Windows 7 — which should help erase bad memories of its poorly received predecessor Vista — Microsoft has a new version of its huge-selling Office suite of applications in the works, and it is finally making headway against Google with its six-week old Bing search engine.
After months of intermittent negotiations, and an aborted takeover bid last year, Microsoft finally looks ready to strike an Internet search and online advertising deal with Yahoo, according to a source familiar with the situation. An announcement could come before the results on Thursday.
“The sooner these two decide to bring the best of what they both have together and then jointly go after the market, the more it will benefit both,” said Lowenstein.
The broader technology economy could be moving in Microsoft’s direction.
Last quarter’s worldwide PC shipments fell about 3 percent from a year ago, a much smaller drop than expected in the depths of a U.S. recession. Analysts are now talking about growth in PC sales returning in the fourth quarter.
With Microsoft’s Windows 7 scheduled to launch in late October, that could bode well for the company’s fortunes.
“The new product pipeline, combined with even a modest rebound in IT spending growth, could have significant impact on Microsoft’s top-line” in its new fiscal year, which started July 1, according to a Goldman Sachs analyst report last week.
Goldman put Microsoft on its top stock picks list — calling it a “conviction buy” last month.
If the stock rises after earnings, it could trigger an “investor snowball effect”, according to Goldman, whose analysts point out that fund managers in the “growth” sector — looking for share price appreciation rather than undervalued stocks or high dividends — are significantly underinvested in Microsoft.
“The stock was under-owned for a while — it was in growth stock purgatory,” said Lowenstein. “It hadn’t delivered the higher expectations that some of the other software companies were producing.”
If growth fund managers rush to buy an outperforming Microsoft stock to rebalance their positions, that could push the share price even higher, said Lowenstein.
Even after its recent surge, Microsoft stock is still reasonably priced relative to comparable investments.
Based on Friday’s closing price, Microsoft shares are trading at 13.3 times expected earnings per share for fiscal 2010, according to Reuters Estimates.
By comparison, Apple Inc shares are trading at 23.4 times expected earnings for fiscal 2010, Google at 17.4 times and IBM at 11 times.
Despite rising hopes for Microsoft, some still sound a note of caution not to get ahead of a recovery that has not materialized.
“I would love to see higher revenues but I don’t know if that’s realistic,” said Kim Caughey, senior analyst at Fort Pitt Capital Group, which holds Microsoft shares.
“I don’t think their customers are expanding and thus need systems and processes to grow that. I want to see new (technology) projects starting up and I don’t see that anywhere.”
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