Shares of Microsoft (MSFT) closed up 5.31% today after the company announced earnings that beat Wall Street projections.
It’s always worth taking a look at what “beating Wall Street projections” actually means in any specific case. Lowering projections and then beating them is an old Wall Street game–and it seems that’s what we’re seeing here.
Earnings at Microsoft–excluding certain items–came to 69 cents a share. That certainly beat the average analyst forecast of 58 cents a share. But… analysts had cut their estimates from 67 cents a share in June to that 58 cents a share figure that prevailed as the company reported. So, yes, Microsoft jumped the most recent earnings hurdle by 11 cents a share, but it only hopped over the month earlier forecast by 2 cents a share. Further, if you care to go where the market doesn’t seem interested in treading, Microsoft got the benefit of a lower tax rate this quarter. Adjust for that lower rate and earnings would have been just 63 cents a share.
And then there’s the issue of those excluded items. If you include all those items–which came to $1.1 billion including further write downs of the disastrous purchase of Nokia’s cell phone assets–then net income was just 39 cents a share. Way short of 69 cents a share, 63 cents a share or even 58 cents a share.
If the size of an earnings beat seems a questionable metric for evaluating the quarter, what numbers would I pay attention to?
First, revenue growth from cloud computing was indeed impressive-especially in contrast to the continued struggles at IBM evidenced in the company’s earnings report on Monday, July 18. Microsoft reports cloud revenue in a “whacky” (I’m being kind here) format called annualized revenue, which takes revenue from the current quarter and then annualizes it for year as if future quarters were somehow predicted by the current quarter. (Reminds me of one of my favorite punning jokes. The punchline is “Don’t hatchet your counts before they chicken.” You can Google to find the body of the joke.) But, even so, cloud revenue growth was very, very positive at an annualized figure of $12.1 billion. Microsoft’s stated goal is to reach $20 billion in revenue from commercial cloud products by fiscal 2018 (which would end in June 2018) and on these figures that goal is a stretch but possible.
Second, while revenue from the company’s cash cow More Personal Computer division (Windows, etc.) continues to decline–dropping 3.7% year over year in the quarter–the drop is not very fast. It looks like Microsoft will have the time to make the transition to a cloud computing world.
Third, the continued charge against earnings from the Nokia acquisition should be a reminder that Microsoft has a checkered record when it comes to big, expensive acquisitions. In June Microsoft agreed to buy LinkedIn for $26.2 billion. I find it tough to figure out the logic of that purchase and its price.
And finally, moving from Microsoft in particular to a stock market trading at record highs–the Standard and Poor’s 500 stock index closed up 0.43% to 2173.02 today–one key takeaway from Microsoft’s earnings conference call was the lack of concern about the effects of a stronger dollar. From a companywide point of view Microsoft is projecting just a 1 percentage point drag on revenue in the first half of the next fiscal year that began on July 1 and no drag at all in the second half. The damage will be concentrated in the next quarter–that is the July through September quarter. The drag in that quarter will be 2 percentage points. I’ve got two observations on that forecast from Microsoft. If the company is right, then that’s good news for this stock market because it says that worries about a strong dollar are overblown and stocks can move higher from here on hopes that earnings growth will turn positive in the September quarter for companies in the S&P 500. If the company is wrong and if the market as a whole buys into this complacency on the effects of a strong dollar, then we’re looking at some nasty turbulence in the second half of 2016 and into 2017. (The dollar continued its recent rebound today with the Bloomberg Dollar Spot Index up 0.27% to its highest level since June 1.