Intel vs AMD

Since a reader brought up Intel (INTC) in a comment on my prior post, I decided to take a closer look at the history of the Intel vs Advanced Micro Devices (AMD) battle. It seems to me that whenever AMD was successful taking share from Intel, and the stock price outperformed, it was a short-lived phenomenon. The chart below comparing Intel and AMD since 1998 does a great job showing visually the cycle I referred to in response to Simon’s comment in my prior post.

AMD taking share from Intel, and the resulting stock price rally, is something have happens fairly regularly. However, the chart shows that when AMD takes off it rarely can maintain the business momentum (due mainly to Intel’s high responsiveness to such events), and when optimistic profit estimates aren’t reached, the stock comes tumbling back down to earth. Could history repeat itself? I tend to think it will, although the timing will not be easy to pinpoint.

Vonage Files for $250M IPO

Phone service upstart Vonage Holdings has filed initial paperwork with the SEC, the first step toward a possible IPO that aims to raise up to $250 million. Given the recent appetite investors have had for well-known consumer-related initial public offerings (Chipotle, Under Armour, to name a couple), the timing of this filing makes sense from the corporate perspective.

So, does the stock make for a good investment? Should the IPO come to fruition, we’ll likely see a huge first day spike, allowing all of the investment banks’ best clients to make a bundle. However, a closer look at Vonage’s financials shows that any after-market valuation might be too high. For the first nine months of 2005, Vonage lost $190 million on sales of $174 million. Marketing costs totaled $176 million, a staggering figure.

IPO proceeds would undoubtedly go toward more marketing. While Vonage does have 1.4 million customers, how much are they actually worth? The Vonage service is a commodity, offering no differentiation from Comcast’s service or anyone elses. Vonage is under cutting the competition on price ($24.95 for unlimited long distance calling to the U.S., Canada, and Puerto Rico) but there is no reason to think larger players won’t attack that advantage in the future, and company’s like Skype are focusing on free consumer voice services.

Much like other data and voice services, more competitors will enter the market, pushing prices down. Without a differentiated product offering, Vonage shares will likely be overpriced by retail investors should the IPO go smoothly.

Google and Wall Street Finally Converge

After picking up some Google (GOOG) shares yesterday afternoon as the stock plummeted from $430 to $350 on word of their disappointing earnings report, I just sold those shares, and all others I own for myself and for my clients, at $400 per share. Think of it as wanting to go out on top after a great trade.

The case can be made that Google should be held at current levels. Inclusion in the S&P 500 will be upcoming, and word is that the company will be announcing several large distribution deals with large, popular content providers in coming months. There will be positive catalysts after last night’s shocker.

After all, if Google gave quarterly guidance like other firms, investors and analysts would not have been surprised with a headline EPS number of $1.54 per share for Q4, because they would have known where tax rates were going to be. The business is still solid, taking market share and expanding into new areas. Last night’s report did not show that fundamentals have deterioriated. Rather, growth is simply slowing down due to the law of large numbers. That is the bullish case.

However, these are not the reasons I have owned the stock since $170 per share. The “value” I saw had to do with the fact that the Street didn’t fully understand what the earnings power of the company’s search franchise was. If investors knew Google could earn $8 or $9 in 2006, their IPO in August 2004 would never have been priced at $85.

Last night’s report showed me that Wall Street is no longer underestimating Google’s growth outlook. Earnings, adjusted for the tax rate increase, were a few cents above consensus, but below the highest printed estimate. Revenue came in right at the estimate. Upside from domestic search appears limited from here.

Does that mean the stock is done going up? Not necessarily. Google is investing huge amounts of money in international operations and new products outside of core search. The potential is huge, and they have the money, the people, and the momentum to conquer new markets. The next task for Google is to monetize these other products. Can they make decent money with Gmail, Google Video, Google Earth, Google China, Google Images, and the many other areas we are speculating they will enter?

Nobody knows for sure. Bulls on the stock believe they can. However, just because they are in position to do so does not mean they will. If they can monetize these product lines, growth will continue and the stock could very well go a lot higher. However, it is not as clear to me that this will happen, at least not as clear as it was that GOOG was too cheap at $170 per share.

Google is trading at 45 times this year’s projected earnings. The issues the company addressed last night (growth deceleration in search and massive spending on international markets) could very well result in more earnings disappointments in the near term.

The risk-reward outlook seems to be less compelling to me today. Maybe that will change in the future if we get another quarter or two of disappointing earnings, or if other product lines boom, but right now I’m content with selling at $400 and seeing how it all plays out.

Google Drops $80 in After Hours Trading

The headline numbers at Google (GOOG) were $1.29B in sales and $1.54 EPS, versus expectations of $1.29B and $1.76. The stock just opened down $80 to $350 in the extended hours session. The reason for the EPS miss was a higher tax rate (41.8%) than what most people expected (26%-30%). Had the rate been in-line with estimates, EPS would have beat consensus by a few cents. The company said it expects a 30% tax rate in 2006, so it could be a one-time hiccup and not that big of a deal. I am going long a little stock into the conference call, thinking that the initial reaction might be too violent to the downside after we hear what they have to say. It should be interesting.

Friday Tech Talk

ACS BUYOUT APPEARS LIKELY

It appears the days of Peridot owning shares of Affiliated Computer Services (ACS) may be coming to a close. Rumors have been swirling in recent weeks that the company is up for sale, with a long list of private equity firms in on the bidding process. Reports have pegged potential price tags in the range of $62 to $65 per share.

While a deal seems likely, I am really hoping to get close to $65, as my fair value calculation nets a $66 price objective. Since rumors have been out there, but no deal is in place, ACS has drifted down a couple of points to its current $60 quote.

For short term players looking to make a few points on the announcement, a deal could be announced as early as Monday, and I would speculate that the odds of one falling apart completely are no more than 25%. Even if no buyer emerges, ACS stock trades 10% below what I think it’s ultimately going to be worth later this year.

NETWORK APPLIANCE RALLY GETTING FROTHY

I was selling shares of Network Appliance (NTAP) into yesterday’s strength as the shares jumped as much as $4 (13%) to $34.49 per share. Evidently, rumors of an IBM (IBM) buyout offer were swirling, which led to an upside breakout.

Even though I am very bullish on NTAP’s business prospects, and an IBM bid could very well send the stock even higher, I don’t think the odds of a buyout are very high. On top of that, with the stock at $34 per share, it’s hard for me to justify much upside to the stock without such a deal.

Estimates for 2006 currently stand at about $0.85 per share. That’s a very high multiple, even with the company’s 25% growth rate and solid balance sheet. For me, the risk/reward trade-off at these lofty levels has lost its luster, at least for now.

Using CES Excitement to Trim Google Position

Today shares of Google (GOOG) are hitting all-time highs trading $16 higher, and that’s after closing over $450 for the first time yesterday. I have decided to unload some more GOOG shares today, even though I wanted to wait for one more event; the announcement of S&P 500 inclusion.

I don’t think we’ll see a massive gain on the day of such an announcement, after all, investors have been expecting it since the anniversary of the company’s IPO this past August. Even so, there should be a quick, and possibly temporary, $10 or $15 pop in the shares when Standard and Poor’s pulls the trigger.

For some reason, though, they have yet to do so. I guess since everyone was waiting for it and expecting it, they’ve decided to hold off. However, they just booted Internet software firm Mercury Interactive (MERQ), and Google seemed like a perfect replacement. Instead they went with Estee Lauder. Weird.

At any rate, when the index funds are forced to scramble to buy thousands of shares, I’ll be right there to sell some to them. After all, at $467 per share Google now trades at 21 times 2006 sales. At these prices, it won’t deserve an outsized position in Peridot portfolios for very much longer.

Side notes:

1) This year’s Consumer Electronics Show has been covered by CNBC all week and I must say, the products are really impressive this year. It is pretty clear to me that the consumer technology cycle will have the wind at its back for a long time, and investors should scour the market for potential winners that are attractively priced.

2) I’m generally not a huge promoter, but Peridot’s 2006 Select List is up 6% so far this year. If you haven’t ordered a copy yet, I think it’ll more than pay for itself (only $20.06 for ten stock picks for the new year).

AOL-Google Deal Appears Close

Despite reports that Microsoft (MSFT) was the front-runner to land a partnership deal with AOL, the Wall Street Journal is now saying that Time Warner is in exclusive talks with long-time partner, Google (GOOG), and a deal could be finalized as early as next week.

This news is not surprising to me. If you were running AOL and wanted to make a deal to maximize the potential for you to regain relevancy in the Internet world, who would you partner with? You’d be crazy not to go with Google at this point in time, especially since Google and AOL have already been working together for years.

The market likely won’t boost Google shares very much, if at all, on this news (especially if the financial terms look generous given many people have valued AOL at zero) but I think this is a big deal for Google and will generate meaningful incremental revenue for years to come.

Google Crosses $400

After hitting $398 twice in recent weeks, shares of Google (GOOG) have surpasses the $400 level today. With the run-up continuing, it is becoming harder to justify buying shares at current levels. In fact, should the forward P/E reach 50, I will likely trim my positions in Google for the second time this year. That said, I still think Google will outperform the market for the next several years.

If you are intrigued by Google stock, but are not willing to shell out 47 times earnings, consider this less risky alternative. A paired trade with Google and Yahoo! (YHOO). Despite brigher growth prospects, higher margins, etc, Yahoo stock trades at 55 times forward earnings, a premium that is interesting. Google is expected to grow sales and earnings in 2006 by 60% and 44%, respectively, versus only 28% and 30% for Yahoo.

A common argument for why Yahoo deserves the premium is its diverse product line. It’s true that Yahoo brings in revenue from more areas than Google does, but I suspect Google’s growth strategy will allow for product diversification in coming months and years.

So, if you are skeptical of the valuation gap between these two Internet leaders, a less aggressive way to play them would be going long GOOG and short YHOO. I had success with this strategy when Yahoo’s market cap exceeded Google’s earlier this year, and I think the trade has more room to run.

Intel’s $25B Buyback

Intel (INTC) stock has been suffering recently, so it appears management thought a 25% increase in its dividend and a $25 billion share repurchase program would help. So, should investors be happy?

Well, INTC stock now yields 1.6% per year, comparable to the S&P 500 index. Decent, but hardly something to get excited about, especially given Intel’s margins and balance sheet position are much better than the typical S&P company.

How about the increased buyback program? Upon perusing their press release, I find it entertaining that they took time in it to brag that since 1990 they have bought back 2.5 billion shares for $49 billion. They seem to think this is a good thing and shareholders should be impressed by that.

By my math, $49 billion divided by 2.5 billion shares come to $19.60 per share. Intel’s current stock price is around $25, so basically their ROI on their buyback, since inception, totals 25 percent. That’s 25 percent over a 15 year period! Average annual ROI? Less than 2% per year. If investors are impressed that their company has invested a whopping $49 billion over the last decade and a half at an interest rate of less than 2%, they should reassess the situation.

It’s true that investors who bought the stock in 1990 have done amazingly well, but don’t think for a second that it is in any way due to their stock buybacks. In fact, had they not wasted that $49 billion, I bet the stock would have done even better.