A Dell-icious Delight?

After the bell yesterday, Dell (Nasdaq: DELL  ) reported earnings that have investors gobbling up shares on this day before Thanksgiving. Among the good news was a 17% gross margin that the talking heads on CNBC today said was well above expectations, even if it is lower than the 17.4% average for the trailing 12 months ended in August.

The PC maker also booked $0.30 in per-share earnings, a figure that easily beat expectations. Sales came in just a little light at $14.38 billion, but that didn't dampen the enthusiasm of investors, who have bid Dell's shares more than 10% higher this morning. I can't help wondering whether they're trading on little more than wishful thinking.

Consider Dell's outlook, which can be best described as tepid. From the press release:

The company said that the actions it has taken to drive improved operating and financial performance long-term with a better balance of liquidity, profitability, and growth are starting to take hold. However, in the near term, improvement in growth and profitability may not be linear due to a variety of factors, including the timing of continued investments in Customer Experience, global expansion, and new product introductions, as well as a muted seasonal uplift due to changes in the mix of product and regional profit. [Emphasis mine.]

A "muted seasonal uplift?" Look, I realize that Microsoft (Nasdaq: MSFT  ) has delayed the consumer edition of the new Vista operating system till January, but the enterprise edition is all but fully cooked and ready to ship in about a week. Dell is supposed to be able to depend on business customers to offset consumer weakness. Where, pray tell, are the business upgrades?

Nowhere, it seems. And let's not forget the investigations. Dell's press release provided few new details about ongoing probes from the SEC and the Office of the United States Attorney for the Southern District of New York, but its warnings to investors were clear. Management characterized Dell's reported financial results for both Q2 and Q3 as "preliminary," pending the conclusions of regulators.

Of course, the auditing committee of Dell's board already reported problems with the PC maker's financial statements in September. Preliminary? How about we just call these results what they really are: incomplete?

To be fair, this was a decent quarter for Dell. Notebook computer sales rose 17%. Revenue from Asia-Pacific and Japan climbed 23%. And shipping has begun on new servers with AMD (NYSE: AMD  ) Opteron processors; these servers should even the odds in the war for market share versus Hewlett-Packard (NYSE: HPQ  ) , IBM (NYSE: IBM  ) , and Sun Microsystems (Nasdaq: SUNW  ) .

But all of that, to me, is far outweighed by this simple statement from the earnings release:

Dell ended the quarter with $11.6 billion in cash and investments. ... The company suspended its share repurchase program in mid-September and, therefore, only spent $335 million to repurchase 15 million shares." [Emphasis mine.]

That's $11.6 billion in cash and no recent buybacks. If Dell doesn't think its own shares are cheap now, why in the world should you?

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Fool contributorTim Beyers, ranked 1,222 out of 13,759 participants inMotley Fool CAPS, vows never to go back to a PC now that he owns a Mac, with which he wrote this story. Tim didn't own shares in any of the companies mentioned in this story at the time of publication. Get the skinny on which stocks he owns by checking Tim's Foolprofile. Intel and Microsoft, like Dell, are both Motley Fool Inside Value selections. The Motley Fool'sdisclosure policyis a bargain at any price.


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