NEW YORK (CNN/Money) -
Tech stocks, like drunken Mardi Gras revelers on Bourbon Street at about 3 a.m., have hit a bit of a rough patch lately.
After starting the year with much promise, the Nasdaq is now sitting on just a slight year-to-date gain. Several high profile techs that should post strong earnings and sales growth this year have even taken a hit. Applied Materials has slipped almost 5 percent this year. Cisco has fallen about 8 percent. Intel is down nearly 10 percent.
| * data as of 2/23/04 |
| Source: Thomson/Baseline|
But some techs have more than avoided this pullback. In fact, the companies that appear to have the least to be excited about are the ones that many investors are flocking to this year.
The 36 tech and telecom stocks in the S&P 500 that are expected to post less than a 10 percent gain in sales this year and next are up an average of 11 percent so far in 2004. Sun Microsystems has soared more than 17 percent. Motorola, now run by former Sun Micro exec Ed Zander, is up 22 percent. And Lucent Technologies has surged 46 percent.
Then there's Sprint PCS. Even though analysts are predicting sales gains of just 8 percent in 2004 and 6 percent in 2005, its stock is up nearly 70 percent. What gives? Have tech investors been drinking too many hurricanes?
Bingeing on risky techs
It appears that speculation, despite what you may have heard, is alive and well when it comes to tech stocks.
Sprint PCS, for example, has soared largely due to the fact that its rival AT&T Wireless was bought for a handsome premium by Cingular. Sprint PCS is widely viewed as the next logical takeover candidate in wireless. But many analysts don't expect another major merger for at least another year, if not longer.
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Lucent, Sun Microsystems and Motorola are your proverbial turnaround stories. The hope for all three is that, as the economy gets better, increased corporate spending on tech will lift their fortunes and get them out of their multi-year funks. These stocks were beaten up so much during the downturn that it hasn't taken that much good news to satisfy investors.
"A lot of these speculative names have rallied more than blue chip tech companies only because they were punished a bit too much on the downside," said Adam Adelman, a technology analyst with Philippe Investment Management.
Contrast that with strong companies like Cisco and Intel. They are market leaders. So investors don't want them to just simply reaffirm that things are hunky-dory. Pressure is on these companies to keep raising guidance.
Quality names should start to look pretty tempting
But how much higher can companies that investors hope might finally be turning things around continue to outperform those that are clicking on all cylinders?
Adelman thinks that it won't be much longer. He said that while fundamentals have certainly improved for companies like Lucent, Sun and Motorola, much of the optimism is already baked into their stocks. So Wall Street needs to see even more evidence that these riskier techs will be able to fully benefit from an economic pickup. That might be asking for too much.
"Investor patience is not too long these days. For a company like Motorola, I don't think you can expect change to happen in one to two quarters. It will take a long time to turn it around," Adelman said.
And beginning next week, investors should probably start to see more proof that the first quarter will be a fairly decent one for most techs...and that the techs which prospered in the fourth quarter of last year will likely be the ones with continued momentum.
Intel, for example, will give its mid-quarter update for the first quarter on March 4. The company said in January it was expecting sales to be in a range of $7.9 billion to $8.5 billion. Wall Street's consensus estimate is $8.3 billion, which is 23 percent higher than the first quarter of 2003.
Todd Campbell, an analyst with E.B. Capital Markets, an independent research firm, said that many large techs were probably downplaying their initial growth forecasts for the first quarter in order to avoid getting burned by excessive expectations. So if Intel raises guidance, it could be a spark for other blue chip techs.
"Likely these larger, more established stocks will become buys again as the froth gets washed out of the market," said Campbell.
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