Want CNET to notify you of price drops and the latest stories?

Dell delays earnings results; HP on for Thursday

Accounting investigations prompt Dell to postpone results; HP is on track to report solid numbers.

Tom Krazit Former Staff writer, CNET News
Tom Krazit writes about the ever-expanding world of Google, as the most prominent company on the Internet defends its search juggernaut while expanding into nearly anything it thinks possible. He has previously written about Apple, the traditional PC industry, and chip companies. E-mail Tom.
Tom Krazit
5 min read
An investigation into Dell's accounting practices has forced the company to delay the release of its third-quarter results, originally scheduled for Thursday, Dell announced late Wednesday.

Dell needs more time to prepare its current earnings results amid Securities and Exchange Commission and internal investigations into accounting practices in previous years, the company said in a release. It said it now will release results by "the end of the month." Dell has still not filed its quarterly report with the SEC from the previous earnings period.

The company's decision to delay its results means that rival Hewlett-Packard will have Thursday afternoon all to itself. When it reports earnings after the close of the stock market, HP is expected to post revenue of $24.1 billion for its fourth fiscal quarter. Earnings per share are expected to come in at 64 cents, which would be a 25 percent increase over the same period last year. For its 2006 fiscal year, HP is expected to record $91.2 billion in revenue and earnings per share of $2.18. The earnings per share figure would be a 34 percent rise over the same period last year.

Dell had been projected to record revenue of $14.4 billion and earnings per share of 24 cents during its third fiscal quarter. The earnings per share figure would be a 38 percent drop compared with last year's third quarter. On Wednesday, Dell's stock fell 57 cents, or about 2 percent, to $25.18 in after-hours trading.

In August, when Dell reported its second-quarter results, the company disclosed that it was the subject of an informal investigation by the SEC into its accounting practices, including revenue recognition. That investigation is now a formal investigation, a company representative said. The investigation is not related to the stock-option backdating issues that have tripped up many technology companies this year, the representative said. He declined to comment on the exact nature of the investigation.

The delay is the latest embarrassment for Dell in a year that company executives will not remember fondly. Dell has missed several earnings estimates, recalled millions of notebook batteries and ended its long-standing exclusive relationship with Intel in the face of customer pressure and sagging sales. Several high-profile executives--including Bill Amelio, the new head of Lenovo--have also left the company this year.

When the company does report its results, it will not hold the usual conference call with the media and financial analysts to discuss the numbers and issues, the representative said. Only a press release will be distributed to mark the occasion.

Plenty to talk about
HP's Thursday conference call will now have the undivided attention of the financial analyst community. This will be the first earnings conference call for CEO Mark Hurd since the company's boardroom leak scandal erupted. Most analysts said they believe that episode had little effect on the company's financial performance during the quarter, but they could take the opportunity to question Hurd on the internal effects of the scandal. Former HP Chairman Patricia Dunn pleaded not guilty Wednesday to felony identify theft and conspiracy charges.

While accounting investigations and criminal charges make for interesting discussion, both companies have plenty of business-related topics to focus on this month. Unfortunately for Dell, the business isn't going all that well, either.

In most cases, ceding the market share lead to your largest competitor isn't a good thing. HP now rules the roost in the PC market, albeit by an extremely thin margin. But it might have been just what Dell needed to get its financial house in order, according to analysts who think Dell's main goal for the quarter was to stabilize its profits.

"We believe investors and (analysts) have appropriately anticipated Dell's intention to trade revenue for margin by backing off on pricing and retreating from the most competitive situations," Richard Farmer, an analyst with Merrill Lynch, wrote in a research note distributed this week.

Dell has gotten into trouble over the last several quarters by capturing too much market share at the low, unprofitable end of the market, which CEO Kevin Rollins has blamed several times for the company's woes. But Dell also no longer has the pronounced cost advantage over its rivals that it enjoyed for many years. HP and other companies have learned from Dell's example. A shift in PC shipments to notebooks has meant that, because of an in-house manufacturing policy, Dell actually spends more per unit than it would if it followed the lead of the industry, which purchases notebooks completely assembled.

It's also unclear if the huge battery recall initiated by Dell had an impact on the company's fortunes during the quarter. Just about every other PC manufacturer--with the notable exception of HP--followed Dell's lead in recalling batteries made by Sony, but Dell was the first company to recall batteries and also collected the largest number. It's unclear whether PC buyers punished Dell for its high-profile recall, but industry participation rates seem low. Lenovo said it was seeing very weak demand for its recall program, but Dell executives declined to comment last week on the response to its recall.

However, there are signs of life at Dell. The company's beleaguered server business has received a boost from Intel's Xeon 5100 processor, which eroded Advanced Micro Devices' long-held performance advantage. Given that servers are much more profitable than desktop PCs--Dell's main product--it's likely the company will have seen an improvement in earnings during the quarter, Toni Sacconaghi, an analyst with Sanford Bernstein, wrote in a research note.

Dell will also see better margins from its decision to adopt AMD's processors, according to Sacconaghi. After years of fidelity to Intel, Dell finally listened to its customers this year and began offering products using chips from both Intel and AMD. The company's first AMD products are just getting into the market, but going forward Dell will be able to force Intel and AMD to compete for its business, much like HP has done.

HP's dual-processor strategy and a focus on profitability under Hurd have kept its operations running smoothly all year. The benefits from Hurd's massive cost-cutting over the past year are starting to pay off and HP is also making inroads into Dell's enterprise business, Merrill Lynch's Farmer said.

HP likely enjoyed an excellent quarter in the PC business, said Samir Bhavnani, an analyst with Current Analysis. The company was the top player in the U.S. retail market, which doesn't include Dell's totals. The retail market grew 24.4 percent during the back-to-school shopping season compared with last year, and notebook shipments were up 46.5 percent.

The average selling price of a PC tends to fall during consumer-heavy quarters as PC companies fight for business, but HP and other vendors keep their profits up by persuading consumers to purchase bundles of gear, such as printers or digital cameras, Bhavnani said.