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Oracle's expectations game
Company beats lowered expectations, but lowers them further for the current quarter.
June 18, 2002: 8:20 PM EDT
By David Futrelle, CNN/Money Contributing Columnist

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NEW YORK (CNN/Money) - The Oracle of Redwood City, California has learned a thing or two from the Oracle of Delphi, the famously cryptic forecaster of Greek myth.

Oracle surprised investors Tuesday night by reporting fourth quarter earnings, excluding charges, of 14 cents a share, two cents better than the Street's pessimistic expectations and a penny less than a year ago. (Click here to read more about Oracle's earnings.)

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The results were in line with Oracle's March official guidance of 13 to 14 cents a share -- but they handily exceeded the sort-of-guidance investors got a couple of weeks back.

At the time, rumors were swirling that Oracle (ORCL: Research, Estimates) would have to warn that it would report lower than expected earnings. Rather than say explicitly that the company was on track, CEO Larry Ellison said only "if we had made less than 12 cents in operating income, we would have had to warn. We didn't warn."

Wary investors, while (sort of) reassured, took Ellison's gnomic utterance to mean that the company might hit the consensus - but certainly wouldn't beat it.

So Tuesday's results initially sent the stock up 10 percent in after hours trading.

Now for the other news

The quarter was okay. But Oracle still faces considerable hurdles explaining why most of those initial gains in late trading quickly vanished.

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On the conference call, Oracle chief financial officer Jeff Henley made a point of lowering expectations further for the current quarter. While forecasting modest revenue growth for the year, Henley said that first quarter results would likely fall two cents a share short of the current consensus.

Sounding considerably less than exultant, Henley admitted that the company faced a "tough environment," with "visibility going forward very limited, as it has been for the past 18 months." Indeed, Henley said the company didn't expect tech spending to show "significant improvement for at least another six months."

Is Henley, like Ellison, playing the expectations game? (That is, keeping down expectations that it hopes to beat three months from now.) Perhaps, but Oracle will indeed face considerable obstacles in the months and years ahead. Oracle's applications business is struggling, hurt both by the software spending drought and by the company's botched and buggy initial release of its all-in-one "e-business suite."

Meanwhile, Oracle's bread-and-butter database business faces increasing competition on the high end from IBM and on the low end by Microsoft. How much competition is a matter of some dispute: On the conference call, Ellison took issue with recent reports that suggest that IBM had taken the lead in the database business -- a conclusion based on what he said was "one Gartner survey with what I'd call very peculiar methodology."

Even in these chastened times, Ellison's tongue is a sharp as ever.

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