Microsoft’s First Loss Is Traders’ Gain

by Dan Burrows | July 19, 2012 6:23 pm

You’d think the world was ending by the way commentators were screeching about Microsoft’s (NASDAQ:MSFT[1]) second-quarter results. Yes, the software giant reported its first-ever loss late Thursday, but don’t worry: Microsoft and that nice Mr. Gates won’t be selling oranges by the highway.

When it comes to earnings, there are losses, and there are losses — and Microsoft got slammed with the former, non-cash, silly-but-serious accounting of net income kind. The company swung to a quarterly net loss of $492 million, or 6 cents a share, compared with a year-earlier profit of $5.87 billion, or 69 cents a share.

Sounds ugly, except the market doesn’t count like normal people do. Microsoft booked the net loss because back in 2007 it acquired online-advertising agency aQuantive for $6.3 billion.

Cut to 2012 and it turns out the accountants say that the aQuantive business is now worth, oh, maybe a hundred million bucks. Microsoft had to write off $6.2 billion in goodwill[2] for the bad move, essentially admitting that it overpaid for aQuantive by almost the full amount it shelled out for the firm.

It was a boneheaded deal, no doubt. The write-off proves as much. But the only hit to the bottom line today is in the form of a non-cash charge. The money is long gone — this is just the way of playing catch-up with the books.

And the market — as dumb as it might turn out to be the long run — doesn’t care much about niceties like net income. Net income is for bores or long-term value investors or grannies like Warren Buffett.

No, the market — right now, after-hours on a Thursday — cares about things like operating earnings or earnings from continuing operations. Stuff that’s throwing off cash now and will continue to pump out more this quarter and the next.

So after excluding that write-down and another half-billion-dollar item for deferred revenue, Microsoft didn’t lose 6 cents a share. Nope, hallelujah, it earned 73 cents — which clobbered Wall Street’s forecast by 11 cents a share.

Because analysts typically ignore things like one-time, non-cash charges like the aQuantive goose egg. And the Street was able to model it in (and then some), since MSFT told everyone they’d be taking the big hit weeks ago.

Yes, it does make a flashy headline that MSFT posted a loss. And, yes, net income does matter — or at least it should matter a heck of a lot more.

But public companies are held accountable in three-month increments, and by that measure, Mr. Softee beat the Street by a wide margin in the latest quarter.

Operating income trumps net income every time, at least with traders. That’s why shares rallied in after-hours action, despite the company’s historic loss.

As of this writing, Dan Burrows did not hold a position in any of the aforementioned securities.

  1. MSFT:
  2. write off $6.2 billion in goodwill:

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