Stomping Juniper

The last time this much Juniper got crushed, the makers of Bombay Gin were involved. Wednesday, investors were the culprits. They squished the momentum from shares of Juniper Networks (Nasdaq: JNPR  ) , sending the stock lower by more than 26% on what appeared to be weak guidance.

In a conference call with analysts, the networking gear maker said that fiscal second-quarter sales would come in between $565 million and $575 million, and that earnings would be $0.19 per stub after special items. Both were below Street expectations of $586 million and $0.20 per share -- and that's when the selling set in. (In fact, it began just after Wednesday's market close.)

This smells like an overreaction to me, but is it really? Let's deconstruct the results, beginning with the quarter. Sales were up 34% year over year, while earnings per share, excluding charges, rose 33% over the same period.

For the fiscal year, sales were up 55%, free cash flow was up 45%, and per-share earnings were up 64% after special items. Does that sound like a suffering business? Most assuredly no. Which means, dear Fool, that Juniper, like so many others through the years, has fallen victim to the dreaded expectations game.

Here's how it works: Company A has a great year, blowing past Street targets. The next year, it does it again. By the third year, analysts have decided they don't like being perceived as the kid who always gets picked last for soccer. So the bar is set unreasonably high. Of course, Company A trips, and the stock falls. Far.

Sometimes such treatment is well-deserved. Firms that cheat the Street with accounting tricks tend to lose the expectations game permanently. But I don't think that's going on here. To the contrary, Juniper appears reasonably cheap compared to peers such as Cisco (Nasdaq: CSCO  ) , Enterasys Networks (NYSE: ETS  ) , Extreme Networks (Nasdaq: EXTR  ) , and 3Com (Nasdaq: COMS  ) . Consider, for example, that its forward P/E of 16.49 is among the lowest of that group, yet its 22% operating margin is within spitting distance of Cisco's. Moreover, its top- and bottom-line growth rates are orders of magnitude better than any of the others.

Expectations are a tricky game. This quarter, Juniper fell and skinned its knees, but I believe it still has its share of hope. I know, sequential sales growth is expected to decline, but let's look at the numbers in the broader scope of things. After all, 25% sales growth and 43% EPS growth year over year, as is projected for Q2, ought to be good enough to clear just about any hurdle.

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Fool contributor Tim Beyers most enjoys his juniper in his gin. Tim didn't own shares in any of the companies mentioned in this story at the time of publication. You can find out what's in his portfolio by checking Tim's Fool profile. The Motley Fool has an ironclad disclosure policy.


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