Wall Street Beat: Tech Sector off to Strong Start in Q1

A Who's Who of IT bellwethers including Apple, IBM, Intel and Qualcomm issued strong financial reports this week, the height of earnings season, reinforcing forecasts for a strong year for the tech sector.

Tech vendor earnings helped push markets to close up for the week ahead of the Good Friday market holiday in the U.S. The tech-heavy Nasdaq closed Thursday at 2820.16, up by 17.65 for the day, within 14 points of its highest close in 52 weeks. Nasdaq computer stocks were up 4.91 percent for the year. The Dow closed at its highest point for the year and the S&P 500 came within six points of its highest close for the year, led by a 1 percent across-the-board gain for tech stocks.

It was a strong showing for markets that have been thrown into turmoil by unrest in the Middle East, rising energy prices and supply chain disruption caused by the tragic March earthquake in Japan.

The star of the week was clearly Apple, which last year became the second most-valued company in the world, in terms of market capitalization -- the total value of its outstanding shares -- behind only Exxon Mobil.

"We believe Apple's industry-leading software ecosystem and its leading hardware expertise will lead to a strong multi-year product cycle for its key products," said Canaccord Genuity technology analyst Michael Walkley in a research note to investors Thursday. "We anticipate solid longer-term earnings growth for F2011 and F2012, and Apple remains one of our top large cap picks for C2011."

With the iPad last year, Apple kept up a record of reinventing key consumer electronics markets, in the wake of the iPhone and iPod. Apple announced a number of sales records Wednesday, and did not disappoint investors betting that the iPad would continue to dominate the market.

The company said it sold a quarterly record 18.6 million iPhones. Overall revenue of $24.7 billion was 83 percent higher than the year-earlier period and set a company sales record for the first calendar quarter. Net income was $5.99 billion, 95 percent higher than the year earlier. Mac sales increased 28 percent year over year and iPhone sales jumped 113 percent.

Apple shares closed at $350.70, up by $8.29 for the day Thursday, and inched further upward in after-market trading.

Qualcomm, whose chips go into a variety of mobile phones, was also widely credited for lifting markets at the end of the trading week, as it came in with an upbeat earnings report that reinforced Apple's good news about the mobile-device sector. Reporting after the market closed Wednesday, the company said net income for the quarter rose 29 percent year over year to $999 million, while revenue increased 46 percent to $3.88 billion.

Qualcomm gained $1.67 to close at $56.94 Thursday, experiencing one of the biggest percentage gains of major tech companies on the markets for the day.

Other highlights of the week included:

-- IBM Tuesday said sales for the quarter increased in all its major product categories and raised its earnings forecast for the year. Revenue came in at $24.6 billion, up 8 percent year over year, while net income was $2.9 billion, up 10 percent. IBM shares Thursday closed at $168.28, up by $3.53

-- Intel, also on Tuesday, reported net income of $3.2 billion, up 29 percent year over year, and revenue of $12.8 billion for the first quarter, a 25 percent year-over-year increase. The company cited strong demand for data center products in the enterprise, which reinforces expectations for a strong year for IT sales to corporations. Intel shares rose by $0.05 Thursday to close at $21.46.

-- EMC Wednesday reported record profit and revenue, marking an 18 percent year-over-year gain in sales, to $4.6 billion, and a 28 percent jump in net income, to $477.1 million. The company said continued healthy enterprise demand for both information infrastructure and virtual infrastructure products and services boosted the results especially within the Europe/Middle East/Africa and Asia Pacific/Japan regions. Company shares rose $0.49 to close at $28.45 Thursday.

The financial results helped boost markets amid tepid economic news. For example, the U.S. Department of Labor said Thursday that applications for unemployment benefits dropped to 403,00 last week, a smaller decline than was expected by economists. The Federal Reserve Bank of Philadelphia on Thursday reported regional manufacturing activity declined so far this month.

Despite geopolitical turmoil, and a recovery from the Great Recession that at times has appeared to falter, the continued strength of tech earnings has inspired analysts to stick by optimistic predictions for the year. For example, Forrester recently raised its 2011 IT spending forecast to 8 percent growth in the U.S. in 2011, up from a 7.4 percent forecast in January.

This week was the busiest of the month for earnings, but stay tuned for more IT financial news next week, as Microsoft, among other tech vendors, reports.

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