Week in review: Bad news market bears

Tech gets battered on the stock market, but not Microsoft, which seems recession-proof. Also: Wireless goes to Washington.

Financial markets around the world went on a wild ride this week, and tech stocks were not immune to the nausea.

The Dow had back-to-back trading sessions with 600-point swings, and the Federal Reserve stepped in to try to calm markets with a 0.75 percentage point reduction in its key short-term federal funds rate--the largest single-day interest rate cut. Markets seemed to stabilize, but not before several companies gave up a healthy chunk of market capitalization.

Among the more prominent tech stocks, Apple chimed in with strong results for its first quarter, thanks to the strength of its Mac business. The company reported revenue that exceeded analyst expectations. Mac sales were up 44 percent compared with last year, but iPod sales weren't as strong as expected--22.1 million in sales versus Wall Street expectations of 24.7 million--and Apple's guidance disappointed investors, who sent the stock down more than 15 percent before it settled at down 10 percent.

Also, there's a numbers gap that seems to suggest that demand for the iPhone in America may be starting to wane. AT&T, the exclusive American carrier of the iPhone, activated just 900,000 iPhones during the fourth quarter, and wrapped up the year with "just at or slightly under 2 million iPhone customers."

However, Apple announced at Macworld that it has sold 4 million iPhones through the middle of January. The discrepancy is leading some to suspect that Apple might have a demand problem.

In the past month, Apple's stock price has declined from more than $200 a share to about $136, leading some CNET News.com readers to declare they see the end of Apple's glory days, while others prophesied hard times ahead for the tech industry as a whole.

"If the market thinks (steadily growing, cash-rich and debt-free) Apple should be downgraded, what will they think about the others?" wrote one reader to the News.com TalkBack forum. "Especially those with major problems like Sprint, Motorola, Palm. 2008 looks bloody for tech stocks."

Speaking of Motorola, there's another company that appears to be in peril. Once the second-largest handset maker in the world, the company's stock dropped more than 22 percent, to $9.55, in midday trading, after it reported an 84 percent decline in fourth-quarter profit, due mostly to sharp declines in its handset business. The company's newly appointed CEO, Greg Brown, further spooked investors by saying during the conference call with analysts and investors that a turnaround of the handset division "will take longer than expected."

eBay reported Wednesday that fourth-quarter profits rose 53 percent from a year earlier to $531 million, and revenue increased 27 percent to $2.18 billion. However, the stock dropped about 6 percent in after-hours trading to $27.15 after eBay warned that revenue in the current quarter and for the full year would be below analyst estimates.

While auctions represent the majority of eBay's revenue, growth was led by other units, including PayPal, online ticketing site StubHub, Internet phone company Skype, classifieds, and advertising.

The warning came as eBay announced that Meg Whitman would step down as chief executive of eBay after a decade at the helm, allowing a trusted insider, John Donahoe, head of eBay Marketplaces, to respond to slowed growth at the online auction pioneer.

Redmond: Recession, what recession?
Of course, not everyone is hurting. One of the standouts is Microsoft, which reported earnings well above the high end of what analysts had been expecting. Microsoft also increased guidance on the current quarter and fiscal year. Investors were understandably pleased with the report, sending the stock up 4 percent in after-hours trading.

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