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Investment income on the outs at Intel, Microsoft

Intel's well is dry, thanks to a bunch of bad dot-coms in its portfolio, and Microsoft's investment income, despite some gains, is slipping.

This is a tale of two investment portfolios--Intel's and Microsoft's.

Intel's investment-income well has run dry, thanks to a bunch of bad dot-coms in its portfolio. Microsoft's gains from investments are better, but the software giant's investment income is slipping. Falling investment income could hurt the companies' ability to deliver positive news.

We'll start with Intel, since it's the most up-front about its portfolio. Although Intel's capital-spending plans and fourth-quarter results got the most attention, investors need to watch that investment-income line.

Intel, like Microsoft, has made a habit of making its numbers with the help of investment income. Aided by a surprise investment gain of about a penny a share, Intel just so happened to top estimates by a penny. Intel has been massaging its numbers with investment gains through most of 2000.

Intel Capital is a massive unit that has a portfolio of more than 550 public and private companies. We're not going to begrudge Intel for being a savvy investor, but many critics have wondered out loud how the company's portfolio (and therefore Intel's positive news) would fare in a dicey market. We're about to find out.

In Intel's fourth quarter, the company pocketed $799 million from investments and interest. That gain was higher than the company's revised expectations for a gain of $675 million and clearly helped Intel's bottom line. The difference between estimates and Intel's realized gains was attributed to a $117 million gain from the transfer of Intel's Interactive Media Services division to Convera, a new, publicly traded company formed with Excalibur.

Intel off the rails
But Intel said its gravy train is derailing. Investment and interest income would be $180 million in the first quarter, lower than analysts had expected, the company said. Merrill Lynch analyst Joseph Osha had projected investment income of $400 million ahead of Intel's earnings.

The $180 million target assumes "no net gains from the sale of equity investments," said Intel. Translation? Intel is not expecting much from the stock market. Indeed, the company's massive investment portfolio has taken a hit amid the market correction. At the end of December, Intel's portfolio was worth $3.74 billion on paper, down from $5.85 billion as of Sept. 30.

Fred Hickey, editor of The High-Tech Strategist newsletter, recently reconstructed Intel's public portfolio via Securities and Exchange Commission filings. It's not hard to see why Intel Capital's value tanked.

Intel held such gems as CMGI, Covad Communications and eToys. In the first three quarters of 2000, Intel used investment gains to beat estimates. "The portfolio's decline is far worse than the Nasdaq's, since Intel's positions are primarily second and third tier names," Hickey said in his Dec. 4 newsletter.

Hickey, who has been flagging Intel's investment income for a while, has been largely ignored by Wall Street. But that may be changing.

After Intel's earnings report Tuesday night, even sell-side analysts--those who focus on selling investments--who had previously ignored the chipmaker's investment gains, wondered if the company could continue to deliver positive news without capital gains.

Charles F. Boucher, an analyst with Bear Stearns, said he won't include capital gain-related income in his future earnings estimates. Given that, it's no wonder Boucher cut his estimates for the company in 2001--Intel had more than $1 billion in capital gains in 2000.

SG Cowen Securities analyst Drew Peck cited 10 reasons why Intel is in trouble. Losing its investment cushion was ranked sixth, ahead of falling PC and chip prices, investment for new technologies, slowing consumer demand, and a weak return from Intel's effort to move into communications components.

That ranking says a lot. It also says that analysts were well aware that Intel's positive news had a lot to do with its portfolio.

Eye on Microsoft
Microsoft isn't any different. Executives told analysts Thursday night to expect $800 million in investment income for the next two quarters.

However, watch Microsoft's investment income closely.

In its second quarter, Microsoft took a bath on derivatives. Net recognized gains represented $233 million of Microsoft's investment income in the second quarter, which included $446 million of net losses attributable to derivatives.

Microsoft's total second-quarter investment income, which includes $518 million of interest on its massive cash position, was $751 million.

If you don't include Microsoft's interest income, the company's net gains are slipping. In its fiscal first quarter, Microsoft realized gains of about $600 million, including $156 million from the sale of Sidewalk. Add in interest, and Microsoft raked in $1.13 billion in investment income for the quarter.

In its fourth quarter, Microsoft realized gains of about $650 million. Throw in interest, and Mr. Softie raked in $1.13 billion in the fourth quarter alone. For fiscal 2000, investment income was $3.18 billion, "due in part to the recognition of net realized gains and in part to the larger investment portfolio."

And if those investment income gains die, the companies' track record of beating the Street dies with them.