Missed connections for Cisco

Cisco's disappointing guidance raises eyebrows at a time when smaller competitors are growing fast.

By Jim J. Jubak Nov 12, 2010 1:24PM

Jim JubakCan Cisco Systems (CSCO) stage a comeback?

At first (and probably second and third glances, too) that seems a ludicrous question. We're talking Cisco here -- the gorilla so big that other gorillas make room in the bamboo.

But Cisco's results for the first quarter of fiscal 2011, announced Wednesday, have raised that question. Here's why -- and why the question isn't foolish.

Cisco reported solid growth for the quarter (19.2%), but a drop in gross margin to 62.8% from 65.3% in last year's first fiscal quarter raised an eyebrow or two.

Despite that, the company managed to report earnings of 37 cents a share -- 2 cents above analysts' expectations.

And then the company raised more eyebrows. For the second quarter of fiscal 2011 (which ends in January 2011), Cisco slashed its projections for revenue to $10.1 billion to $10.3 billion; analysts had been projecting $11.08 billion. Revenue growth will be just 3% to 5% from the second quarter of fiscal 2010.

The company's read on all of fiscal 2011, which ends next July, wasn't much better. For the fiscal year, Cisco projected revenue growth of just 9% to 12%. That would put revenue for the year at $43.6 billion to $44.8 billion. Wall Street analysts had been projecting $45.28 billion.

The company blamed the shortfall on a slump in government spending on telecommunications and Internet gear and on intense competition in the TV set-top box business from Motorola (MOT) and smaller competitors.

But the lowered guidance has apparently fed right into nagging worries about Cisco's business strategy (which is why the stock lost 16% on Thursday). 

I'd put the worry like this: Has Cisco, by moving away from its core market of Internet switching and routers to businesses such as set-top boxes and servers and teleconferencing, sacrificed too much core strength?

Investors wouldn't be asking this question quite so loudly except that Cisco's smaller and more focused competitors, such as F5 Networks (FFIV), are growing much faster than Cisco and aren't looking for anything like the slowdown Cisco is projecting. F5 Networks, for example, saw revenue grow by 35% from fiscal 2009 to fiscal 2010 (which ended in September). Earnings per share in the most recent quarter grew by 67%.

Investors have voted with their feet by buying F5 Networks shares -- they're up 128% in 2010 -- rather than Cisco. Even before Thursday's drop, Cisco's shares were down 1% for the year.

I think Cisco has a tough time ahead of it -- not so much because they need to make wrenching changes in their business as because they've got to turn around now-skeptical investors. Prove to me, they'll say, that growth is back. Prove to me that Cisco is still a growth stock. Prove to me that I shouldn't buy F5 or Aruba Networks (ARUN) instead.

Until Cisco proves that -- which will certainly take a good two quarters, in my opinion -- I'd treat this as a value stock. Analysts were all over themselves cutting price targets Thursday. I'm doing the same: My new target price for Cisco Systems is $25 a share by July 2011. It traded just above $20 on Friday.

At the time of this writing, Jim Jubak didn't own shares of any companies mentioned in this post in personal portfolios. The mutual fund he manages, Jubak Global Equity Fund (JUBAX), did own a position in Cisco Systems as of the end of its September 2010 quarter. For a full list of the stocks in the fund as of the end of the most recent quarter, see the fund's portfolio here.



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