NEW YORK (CNN/Money) -
Good news is good news...unless it isn't good enough. Welcome to the wacky world of tech investing.
After the closing bell Wednesday, three top techs -- Intel, Yahoo! and Apple -- delivered gangbuster fourth quarter results. Not only that, indications from all three were that 2004 will be a better year than 2003.
Then Thursday morning, IBM shocked the market by announcing its fourth quarter numbers five days early. Its results were also fantastic and the company gave an upbeat outlook for this year as well.
But shares of Intel (INTC: Research, Estimates), Yahoo! (YHOO: Research, Estimates) and Apple (AAPL: Research, Estimates) all opened lower Thursday morning, helping to drag the entire Nasdaq down about 1 percent in early morning trading, while shares of Big Blue surged more than 5 percent.
Market's reaction not that strange
At first glance, this may seem odd. Why are Intel, Yahoo! and Apple being punished for essentially saying the same thing (i.e. good times are here again) that investors are rewarding IBM (IBM: Research, Estimates) for?
Wall Street knew there was no way that Intel, Apple and Yahoo! would miss their numbers. The key question was by how much they would actually beat them. It appears that "whisper numbers," that bizarre phenomenon from the late 90's bubble is back with a vengeance.
So with that in mind, the sell-off of these three stocks is not a huge shock.
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"It's profit taking. The market loves to do that. Good news hits the tape and investors sell into it," said Alex Vallecillo, portfolio manager with National City Investment Management, which runs the Armada family of mutual funds.
Wall Street was less sure about how strong IBM's numbers would be. A knock on the company for the past few months is that its sales growth has been primarily driven by favorable currency exchange rates, and not real demand.
And although the weak dollar once again boosted overall results for IBM, management hinted that corporations were finally looking to increase tech spending this year.
In addition, there were concerns that IBM would not meet its target for new contract signings of $14 billion in the services division.
A miss in IBM's services business would have been a major problem for IBM since the division now accounts for nearly half of Big Blue's total sales and pre-tax profits. But IBM more than allayed those fears by announcing that bookings for the quarter came in at $17.3 billion.
Unreasonable expectations for some techs
So investors are boosting IBM because expectations did not get blown up to unreasonable levels. That was not the case with Intel, Yahoo! and Apple.
Take Intel for example. The stock doubled last year as investors correctly bet on a semiconductor recovery. But investors got so excited about the chip sector's prospects that they became delusional.
Part of the disenchantment with Intel's first quarter guidance was because the company said sales would probably be lower than the fourth quarter. That's absurd. There are seasonal trends in the chip business. Sales should fall off in the first quarter as demand for things like PCs, cell phones and other gadgets using chips dip after the end of the year.
For most of tech, the first quarter is weak compared to the fourth quarter. But investors seem to have forgotten this in their rush to scoop up Intel other tech stocks.
"As a general rule, techs got ahead of themselves last year. There's a 'priced to perfection' mentality with tech now," said Michael Cuggino, president of Pacific Heights Asset Management, a mutual fund firm that owns Intel in the Permanent Portfolio and Permanent Portfolio Aggressive Growth funds. He said he was not disappointed by Intel's guidance.
With all this in mind, it's probably time to take another look at what did well last year and reevaluate whether or not they can possibly repeat as this year's winners. Most likely they won't, even though business conditions should be better.
Remember the P/E?
Krishna Shankar, a semiconductor analyst with JMP Securities, said that leading chip stocks like Intel and Texas Instruments should have reasonably solid years. But what he considers to be a nice return might not look so hot to momentum investors that got caught up in a late-90's like frenzy for tech.
"The easy money in semiconductors was made last year. Large-cap leaders like Intel and Texas Instruments have 15 to 20 percent upside from current levels," Shankar said. He owns Intel but his firm has no banking ties to the company.
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To make money in tech this year, investors might actually have to start paying attention to things like price-to-earnings multiples. How quaint.
"Some techs have been chased up to valuations so that no matter what they deliver, the stock performance will be disappointing," said John Rutledge, manager of the Evergreen Technology fund.
To that end, Rutledge says some of his favorite tech stocks are Hewlett-Packard, Nokia, IBM and Lexmark, which at year's end, traded in a range of 16 to 22 times 2004 earnings. By way of comparison, Intel's P/E was 26 while Apple and Yahoo! were trading at 55 and 85 times 2004 earnings projections.
So as we've seen Thursday, it's probably going to be easier for bargain-priced techs to get a pop on strong results than techs that already surged last year on the expectation of those pops this year.
"When you have a reasonable P/E and you raise the E that's how you're going to outperform," said Rutledge.
An earlier version of this story incorrectly said that Accenture hinted at increasing pricing pressure in its earnings conference call.
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