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Five value plays in tech
While some tech bell weathers look shaky, there are still some big names that offer value.
December 3, 2005: 7:27 AM EST
By Amanda Cantrell, CNN/Money.com staff writer

NEW YORK (CNNMoney.com) - It's no secret that compared to stocks like Apple and Google, which boast phenomenal growth as well as cultural cachet, some of the biggest names in tech look a little tired.

But while older stocks like Microsoft, Dell and Cisco no longer boast the hot growth rates they used to -- and indeed, Microsoft's stock has been stuck in a rut for three years now -- some blue chip tech stocks are still a good value, analysts and investors say.

Especially for investors who want exposure to tech but also to be able to sleep more soundly, some of these stocks could provide good returns in 2006.

Despite recent setbacks at long-term winners such as Dell (down $0.01 to $30.82, Research) and, earlier this year, IBM (down $0.56 to $88.65, Research), tech's maturing, and in some cases dividend-paying stalwarts could find a tailwind as companies shelling out for new technology stick with safe, proven brand names, according to a Goldman Sachs survey.

"We'd concur that '06 is not going to be a gangbuster year for increases in tech spending," said Ben Halliburton, chief investment officer with Summit, N.J.-based money management firm Tradition Capital Management, which owns shares of Microsoft. "Everybody's still waiting for a strong recovery after the 2000 bust."

Halliburton said he expects the industry's revenues will probably grow about 5 to 7 percent for 2006.

Some names likely to benefit from the flight to safety phenomenon in the fourth quarter include Cisco (down $0.05 to $17.64, Research), IBM and Microsoft, (up $0.12 to $28.01, Research) according to Goldman Sachs.

"The blue chips look well positioned not just because their valuations look good, but (because businesses) have gone to finding one-source supplier," said Kim Caughey, vice president and equity analyst at Fort Pitt Capital Group, a Pittsburgh, Pa.-based money manager. "The larger a company is, the more solutions they supply."

Opinions mixed on tech giants

"Culturally, Microsoft seems to be a bit out to sea at the moment," said Roger Kay, president of tech research and consulting firm Endpoint Technologies. "They are looking behind them and seeing Google gaining share."

But he noted that Microsoft still has a tremendous franchise in its Windows operating system and Office software products, which produced profits of $3.2 billion and $2.7 billion in revenues, respectively, in the last quarter alone.

"Google's got nothing like that," he said. "If you are looking at a fundamental business, it's very solid."

With a price to earnings ratio of 21 based on 2006 expected earnings, Microsoft is trading at a premium to the S&P 500's multiple of 15.7, but its profits are expected to grow 13 percent next year, nearly double the S&P 500's expected earnings growth.

Halliburton at Tradition Capital likes Microsoft, saying it's a strong value play "given the cash on the balance sheet, their ability to buy back shares, and their ability to change their employee compensation."

He added that the company is also on the cusp of a major new product cycle, including its recently launched Xbox 360 game player, and a new Office software suite and the first major upgrade to the Windows operating system in five years, both due next year.

Another bellwether some analysts like is IBM. The Armonk, N.Y.-based computer company got off to a tough start earlier this year, reporting sales and earnings that fell well below consensus forecasts.

"They had a huge drop in April but they've crawled their way back," said End Point's Kay. The company's price to earnings ratio is about 17, which Kay says is "a very fair valuation of a big industrial company with a lot of profit. It's another solid perennial player."

Caughey at Fort Pitt Capital bought IBM earlier this year "because of the multiple -- it was just so low, comparatively," she said. "There is nothing fundamentally wrong with the company. They had a blip and they seem to be able to recover."

But Halliburton is less enthusiastic, saying it's a good place for investors who are conservative but feel they need to be in the tech sector. He feels that the stock, which has traded in a 52-week range of $71.85 to $99.10, is too stodgy to be compelling.

Another bell-weather is Intel (up $0.25 to $27.43, Research).

The chipmaker recently upped its dividend 25 percent, to 10 cents a share, starting in the first quarter, and ramped up its share buyback plan to up to $25 billion.

And much has been written about Intel losing some market share to rival AMD in the market for servers, but Endpoint's Kay feels that's been overblown. Intel is expected to produce earnings growth of about 13 percent next year.

Still, Halliburton said he feels Intel doesn't offer enough potential for sustained revenue and profit growth to present a buying opportunity at current levels.

Growth opportunities still there

While 2006 may not be a blowout year for corporate tech spending, and some older tech stocks could make a comeback, that doesn't mean newer techs are going to suffer.

"My sense is that as long as illusion holds sway in our culture there is room on the upside for new and exciting things to happen," said Kay, adding he wouldn't "run out and invest in Google (up $3.61 to $417.70, Research) right now.

"But I still think companies like Google represent a good vision of the future and where things are going to go. The companies I find interesting have riskier upside," he added, citing Google, Yahoo! (up $0.14 to $41.21, Research), eBay (Research) and Amazon.com (up $0.06 to $49.06, Research) as examples.

"I really like small companies that aren't public but they'd be ones I'd be watching when they do an IPO," said Laura DiDio, an analyst with Boston-based market research firm Yankee Group, citing the security and storage sectors as particularly attractive. One example she cites is FullArmor, which makes enterprise management software.

She also likes anti-virus software maker Symantec (up $0.23 to $18.05, Research).

"They missed the third quarter and the stock has been hammered pretty hard, but they have a rock solid balance sheet generating a huge amount of free cash," she said. "It's very attractive at these levels."

Goldman's researchers' top growth picks for the year also include Symantec, along with Google and Marvell Technology Group (up $0.63 to $58.81, Research), which makes communications gear.

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Endpoint's Kay and Yankee Group's DiDio do not own shares in the companies they discussed. Their do no investment banking.  Top of page

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