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Why Intel Might Take a Breather

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I'm sure that more than a few Intel (Nasdaq: INTC  ) bulls are scratching their heads right now. Despite what looked like an amazing Q4, Intel's truckload of good news earned it nothing more than a 3% haircut the following day.

For the fourth quarter, Intel posted sales and earnings $400 million and $0.10 per share ahead of market estimates, respectively, while its gross margin, at 64.7%, reached an all-time high. What's more, the midpoint of its Q1 2010 revenue guidance range, at $9.7 billion, is also a good $400 million beyond Wall Street's forecast. Why no love from the Street, then?

I think the market had already baked a healthy sales and earnings beat into Intel's stock. Going into the earnings report, shares were up a good 80% from their February lows. Reports of improving consumer spending over the holiday season were easy to find, and IDC and Gartner had respectively reported Q4 annual PC shipment growth of 15.2% and 22.1% -- well above their previous Q4 forecasts. Throw in the start of a product-line refresh, as shipments of chips based on Intel's Nehalem architecture began to ramp up in earnest, and the real surprise would've been if "Chipzilla" didn't deliver an estimate-crushing quarter.

It's also likely, however, that Intel's full-year 2010 gross margin guidance of 61% seems pretty underwhelming, given its Q4 gross margin number. Analysts also predict that 2010 will be a recovery year for enterprise PC sales, which carry a somewhat higher average selling price than consumer systems.

Intel said its gross margin forecast looked lukewarm only because Q4 margins were inflated by an abnormally large mix of high-end Nehalem chips -- both 45-nanometer parts that were already on the market, and newer, 32-nanometer Clarkdale and Arrandale parts announced in January. As cheaper 32-nanometer chips ramp up in earnest this year, margins and selling prices will come back down to Earth.

There's likely some truth to Intel's explanation of things. But it also wouldn't surprise me if Intel's remaining a little cautious about the speed at which the enterprise market recovers. While IDC and Gartner reported great Q4 PC shipment numbers, Dell (Nasdaq: DELL  ) , with its heavy reliance on enterprise customers, was a serious laggard compared with Hewlett-Packard (NYSE: HPQ  ) and Acer, which are much stronger on the consumer side. And with unemployment in the U.S. and many other developed nations at pretty high levels, and credit markets still a little shaky, a full recovery in business IT spending could take some time.

In the grand scheme of things, Intel's margin decline shouldn't be anything for investors to get too nervous about. The ramp up in mainstream Clarkdale and Arrandale parts, which have a graphics processor built into the same package as a microprocessor, should leave the company in good competitive shape relative to Advanced Micro Devices (NYSE: AMD  ) in both the desktop and notebook markets. And the positive reviews lauding Microsoft's (Nasdaq: MSFT  ) Windows 7 bode well for an eventual pickup in enterprise PC buying – even if it doesn't come as quickly as some optimists hope.

Throw in Intel's historical tendency to be conservative in its revenue and margin guidance, and there may still be some good news that the market isn't taking into account here -- even if that good news means the stock will take a breather over the short run.

Fool contributor Eric Jhonsa has no position in any of the companies mentioned. Intel and Microsoft are Motley Fool Inside Value picks. Motley Fool Options has recommended buying calls on Intel and a diagonal call on Microsoft. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. The Fool has a disclosure policy.

Read/Post Comments (3) | Recommend This Article (1)

Comments from our Foolish Readers

Help us keep this a respectfully Foolish area! This is a place for our readers to discuss, debate, and learn more about the Foolish investing topic you read about above. Help us keep it clean and safe. If you believe a comment is abusive or otherwise violates our Fool's Rules, please report it via the Report this Comment Report this Comment icon found on every comment.

  • Report this Comment On January 15, 2010, at 4:11 PM, SimchaStein wrote:

    Thanks Eric for putting things into perspective. Still, INTC is trading below 15x 2010's expected earning. I see upside.

  • Report this Comment On January 15, 2010, at 8:11 PM, memoandstitch wrote:

    The only reason INTC is down is TMF recommended buying Intel calls. With the record-breaking earning release, Intel shareholders could care less how the stock price does today.

  • Report this Comment On January 15, 2010, at 11:04 PM, Techlog wrote:

    Business IT investments are roughly driven by a simple formula: the optimal cost to answer internal user needs. But unlike other investments for any enterprise, on the long term the cost increase instead of decreasing. As a matter of comparison, take any other classic assets, After amortization, it may deliver the same performance, so that help you increase your margin . As an example, even if it need some minor investment to maintain, a machine tool can still produce the same nedded parts after 10 or 15 years of existence, helping the enterprise deliver a higher margin. A Caterpillar loader can still be good after 10 years, with the proper maintenance, that is a lot lower than buying a new. But in IT, the cost increase dramatically over time. First, because the cost of support increase (more software patch to install, more labor to do them, out of warranty repairs and unplanned replacements, etc). Second, your service performance decrease because you are outdated, need more downtime for upgrade, can't adapt to new business needs and requests from users, and that bring the enterprise in a less competitive situation. IT managers are now well aware of this. And now all C level managers are listening to them and are knowing that. For example, if you do lay off, the remainning employees need the best possible tools to deliver the same productivity. Nothing can stop the technology train. Sooner or later, CEO will spend the cash.

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