salesforce.com (NYSE: CRM ) is one heck of a polarizing stock. Shares are trading at a heart-stopping 8,600 times trailing earnings with an EV/EBITDA value of 192. Some investors are clearly willing to pay top dollar for this stock. Two Foolish newsletter services currently recommend salesforce to their subscribers, including one real-money portfolio (more on that in a minute).
On the other hand, some 14% of the float is sold short and only 52% of 1,700 CAPS players with a rating on the stock see it beating the S&P 500. And did I mention that the real-money recommendation here is a short sale?
Interestingly, both the bullish recommendation in our Rule Breakers newsletter and the short sale in Motley Fool Alpha have made money for subscribers. There are apparently many ways to be right about this high-flying, volatile company.
This Thursday night, salesforce reports fourth-quarter earnings. Will the company live up to its bottle-rocket pedigree or should the short-sellers stock up on bubbly drinks?
Analysts expect a 29% non-GAAP earnings boost over the year-ago period, landing at $0.40 per share. That's on 36% higher sales, or $623 million. For what it's worth, the maker of cloud-computing solutions for managing customer relationships has beaten earnings estimates in three of the last four quarters by an average of 8%. According to Zacks, salesforce has either met or crushed earnings targets in each of the last 19 quarters. The current targets are on the high end of management guidance; aspirational but hardly unreachable.
Hiding from the tax collector
If you're scared of salesforce's P/E ratio, it might comfort you to know that a whole lot of non-cash charges help make it so astronomical. Over the last four quarters, the company has reported $3.4 million of after-tax GAAP income but $517 million of operating cash flows.
Low income and high cash flows often point to some very creative accounting in order to keep the tax man at bay. There's some of that going on at salesforce, including a generous helping of stock-based compensation and lots of amortized expenses. The effect is made larger by a growing amount of long-term customer contracts, which adds a lot of money in the "unearned revenues" bucket.
The cloud-computing corner of the technology sector is not a bad place to live. Traditional IT powerhouse Oracle (Nasdaq: ORCL ) let investors down in its last quarterly report, but real-time business analyst TIBCO Software (Nasdaq: TIBX ) immediately showed that there's still a solid market for the right kind of business tools. Oracle and SAP (NYSE: SAP ) have tried to buy their way into the cloud-based IT market -- if you can't beat 'em and all that. But you really can't beat the real thing.
Great, but what does that mean for this week's report?
Patience, young grasshopper. I think this earnings report will simply reinforce that message. But that doesn't automatically create a buying opportunity. Even a strong report could fall short of Mr. Market's hopes. This is the kind of stock you should buy when everyone hates it.
salesforce was steeped in the same mold as TIBCO and is in the business of shaking up the same stodgy old business tools. As long as cloud computing runs hot, salesforce will do the same. It's a bumpy ride, but salesforce has delivered market-crushing returns over the last five years. Look for more of the same in the next five years, including an unpredictable response to this fourth-quarter report.
I've added salesforce to my Foolish watchlist and will keep a close eye on that for the next poorly supported price drop. If you understand cloud computing, you understand salesforce; if you don't, you're probably a skeptic. Brush up on that IT revolution in this free video report and see if you walk away with a newfound respect for the way salesforce does business. The report is totally free but only for a limited time. Watch it right now or forever hold your peace.