IBM's quarterly results should show a solid recovery in technology spending, but investors will likely want reassurance of stronger growth in 2010 before pushing its stock price much higher.
Shares of International Business Machines Corp have risen almost 60 percent in the past year as the company sidestepped the worst of the downturn by cutting costs and shifting its business mix to more profitable services and software.
We do not expect the kind of upside that we've had in the past, said Canaccord Adams analyst Peter Misek, who recommends holding the stock. The sell-side in general, we over-estimated the impact of the recession and under-estimated IBM's ability to cut costs.
Goldman Sachs analyst David Bailey held a similar view on IBM's results, which are due next Tuesday.
While we expect a solid December-quarter report from IBM, we do not think the results will serve as a major catalyst for the stock in either direction, given heightened expectations, he said in a report.
Analysts on average expect IBM to report fourth-quarter revenue of around $27 billion, roughly flat from a year earlier, according to Thomson Reuters I/B/E/S.
Profit per share is seen rising to $3.47 from $3.27 a year earlier, with full-year earnings of $9.88. The company has forecast earnings of at least $9.85 a share.
But the main focus will be on IBM's 2010 outlook. Its last forecast was for earnings per share of around $10 to $11.
Bernstein Research analyst Toni Sacconaghi said he expects IBM to forecast at least $11.00 for the full year.
We note that IBM's playbook over the last two years has been to set achievable guidance and raise it, he said, citing IBM's record of beating consensus EPS in each of the last eight quarters and repeatedly raising guidance.
While the global economic downturn certainly dented profit in 2009, IBM managed to weather the worst of the recession by reducing costs and shifting focus from hardware to IT software and services, which has helped bolster margins.
Today, it is the world's largest IT services provider. Technology outsourcing, automation and support are some of the areas that remained relatively strong during the downturn, as companies sought ways to improve cost efficiency.
While many analysts warned not to expect too much from Tuesday's results, there were some who believe IBM shares could still be bound for more gains, particularly if the global economic recovery turns out to be stronger than expected.
Sacconaghi, for example, has an outperform rating and $155 price target on the stock, which traded 0.5 percent lower at $131.62 late on Friday afternoon.
One key focus is corporate technology spending, which has lagged behind an upturn in the consumer segment.
Some were also bullish about the company's longer-term strategies. Those include its smarter planet initiative, which aims to combine IBM's software and services with its budding analytics business, helping governments and companies like utilities run operations more efficiently.
But some analysts pointed to long-term risks as well, including the emergence of new rivals like Cisco Systems Inc in servers. While software and services account for a majority of the company's revenue, servers remain an key and integral part of its sales.
Cisco announced last year that it was entering the server market, a move that put it in direct competition with IBM as well as Hewlett-Packard Co.
IBM, for its part, has stepped up its partnership with Cisco's smaller rival, Juniper Networks Inc.
(Reporting by Ritsuko Ando; Editing by Richard Chang)