Cisco Shares Climb as Analysts Give a Tentative Thumbs Up

Published on September 14, 2011
by Arik Hesseldahl

Shares of Cisco Systems are moving up today as investors and analysts react to yesterday’s analyst meeting. During his presentation, CEO John Chambers admitted that prior to its restructuring, Cisco had had “an extra four to five inches around the waistline,” but is now much slimmer, having shed more than 12,000 jobs. He also made some aggressive comments about rival Juniper Networks, saying that company is “the most vulnerable I’ve ever seen them.”

Cisco also did what many analysts have been urging for some months and reduced its long-term growth targets to levels it has a better chance of meeting. It said it now expects revenue to grow annually at 5 to 7 percent through 2014 and called for operating margins in the 25 percent range, which is pretty much in line with what some analysts had suggested.

So were they convinced? A little. John Marchetti of Cowen and Co. called it “a positive analyst day.” The more aggressive stance versus competitors and the realistic targets should give the shares a “boost over the near term,” he wrote in a note to clients today. While Cisco’s valuation, which is at about nine times Marchetti’s forward EPS for the 2012 calendar year, is arguably low, he kept his rating at neutral. “Shares look cheap,” he said, “but we do not see a near-term catalyst to drive the stock higher and believe the muted growth outlook and macro-headwinds especially in light of Cisco’s exposure to government and European customers.”

Sanjiv Wadhwani of Stifel Nicolaus was more convinced. In a note to clients today he wrote that “the worst seems to be behind” Cisco following a product transition in its switching business that was responsible for at least part of its troubles over the last few quarters. Moreover, the pricing environment in switching — which had been driven down in part by an aggressive Hewlett-Packard campaign and profit margins on many of its switching products — are “approaching historical levels.” On top of that, he says Cisco has some moves it can make to trim some operational expense — he called them “opex levers” — to make sure that per-share earnings grow faster than sales. He rates Cisco shares a buy with a $20 price target.

Cisco sees Juniper as being “spread too thin” in the marketplace right now, Wadhwani writes. But Cisco’s line of attack won’t necessarily be lower prices. Indeed, the opposite may be true, he wrote: Cisco “will intensely focus on gross margins going forward.”

But that’s not to say there won’t be other weapons, like marketing trash talk. Here’s a sample: Cisco has launched a site where it accuses Juniper of “overpromising and under-delivering.” If there’s more to come like this — frankly, from both sides — the fight should be fun to watch.

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