What's Wrong With Intel Stock Today?

Intel (NASDAQ: INTC  ) shares have been rising ahead of tonight's earnings report. In two days this week, the chip giant rose 4.6% while the Dow Jones Industrial Average (DJINDICES: ^DJI  ) only gained 1.4%. Intel shares set a fresh 52-week high yesterday, reaching levels not seen since summer 2012.

INTC Chart

INTC data by YCharts

But then, Intel investors suddenly shifted into reverse. Intel is one of the Dow's worst performers today, dipping as much as 1.1% overnight and still down by 0.4% just before 2 p.m. The momentum heading into Intel's fourth-quarter report after the closing bell is suddenly kaput.

The only significant news out of Intel is actually a positive note. Intel has been building a state-of-the-art chip manufacturing facility in Arizona, and just announced that the opening will have to wait a while.

The building is complete, fully powered, and air conditioned, but Intel won't install any manufacturing tools right now. Intel's existing factories are only running at 80% of capacity, so why pour money into another plant when other sites can handle the current load with room to spare? Holding back the equipment orders will save Intel about $3 billion in capital expenses.

Yes, that still means that Intel has spent $2 billion to build a mostly empty structure in the Arizona desert. But those charges are already on the books, and Intel can always finish the installation later. For now, the company tapped the brakes until the global PC market picks up again -- or until Intel strikes out into new markets that require sophisticated chip-building facilities.

So it's a delayed capital expense, set to drive Intel's free cash flow higher than expected over the next couple years. It's not a complete victory, given the signals Intel is sending about a slow PC market recovery. But all things considered, it doesn't make sense to punish Intel's stock based on this news.

A more likely explanation for today's price action is that Intel investors are taking some profits off the table, just in case tonight's report doesn't support those 52-week highs. Nervous investors might want to slap a protective collar on their Intel holdings. Me, I'm happy to ignore earnings-week jitters and keep my eye on Intel's long-term prospects instead.

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