Cisco Gets a "Dear John" Letter

Dear John,

The technology sector, if not Wall Street in its entirety, was expecting your Cisco Systems (Nasdaq: CSCO  ) to reverse a long string of disturbing reports. Sadly, you did not deliver. You'll find your personal items in a plastic bag outside the front door. I have unfriended you on Facebook. Please don't call again, begging to win my love back -- we're through!

Mr. Market

That's the letter Cisco CEO John Chambers would find in his mailbox tomorrow if Mr. Market were his longtime roomie. Cisco disappointed pretty much everyone by not beating expectations to a bloody pulp in the fourth quarter. With pretty much all the cards now on the table, it looks as if Intel (Nasdaq: INTC  ) kicked off this earnings season with promises that the rest of Silicon Valley couldn't keep.

It's not that Cisco's results were terrible; fourth-quarter sales grew by 27% year over year to $10.8 billion and GAAP earnings took a 74% leap to $0.33 per share. It's just that the numbers weren't amazing. That's why Cisco's stock is trading down by 9.5% today, taking about $12 billion off the market cap. The 52-week low of $20.68 isn't far away.

That doesn't stop Chambers from being relatively cheerful, though. After a few cursory warnings about slowing economic recovery and cautious customers, John goes back to his usual optimism: "This was yet another very strong quarter with a number of record financial results for Cisco, closing the fiscal year in a tremendous position of strength. ... We're not making a call on the economy going down, I think that probability is on double-dip or whatever you want to call it are relatively low."

As far as Chambers can see, this quarter suffered from about five weeks of weakness starting in mid-June -- it started and ended strong. That could explain why Intel had such a great quarter, closing the books on June 30, while Cisco's accounts saw another few weeks of slow sales.

On the earnings call, analysts tried to cajole more detail out of Chambers on economic signs and on how Hewlett-Packard (NYSE: HPQ  ) fits in as a competitor these days (without mentioning Mark Hurd), but if you expected either fireworks or doom and gloom, you walked away disappointed. Cisco is not taking any chances right now, in actions or in words, though a strong balance sheet does allow the company to keep hiring through whatever downturn may come.

If this quarter was just a bump in the road, we'll hear about it when Texas Instruments (NYSE: TXN  ) updates its midquarter guidance in a couple of weeks. Until then, all bets are off. Is this the beginning of another long, dark night, or just a hiccup before daybreak? Cisco's signals are as mixed as all the rest. Feel free to discuss the economy in the comments box below.

Fool contributor Anders Bylund holds no position in any of the companies discussed here. You can check out Anders' holdings and a concise bio if you like. Intel is a Motley Fool Inside Value choice. The Fool owns shares of and has written puts on Intel. Motley Fool Options has recommended buying calls on Intel. Try any of our Foolish newsletters today, free for 30 days. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.

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