By Scott Moritz
April 16, 2008

By Scott Moritz and Michal Lev-Ram

A solid performance from Nokia (NOK) could be the prescription to elevate the warning-weary mood in the tech sector.

The No.1 mobile phone maker is due to report first-quarter results early Thursday, kicking off the hotly anticipated wireless industry earnings parade. Among the players are No.3 phone shop Motorola (MOT), Verizon Wireless (VZ), Apple (AAPL), AT&T (T) and Sprint (S).

Unlike the worries surrounding other big tech names like Cisco and Google, Nokia’s global reach and the booming worldwide demand for wireless devices gives analysts and investors a bit of confidence that the big Finnish phone titan will hit its targets.

“People are nervous about it but I don’t foresee a big variance” from Wall Street estimates, says one analyst, who asked not to be named.

Here are some of the key numbers to look for on the score sheet. Analysts’ consensus estimates call for Nokia to have sold about 115.5 million phones, booking an adjusted profit of 57 cents (36 Euro cents) on $20 billion (12.7 billion Euros) in sales for the quarter ended last month.

Nokia usually doesn’t provide detailed financial forecasts, but there will probably be some lively discussion about the immediate and the long-range business outlook.

“Nokia may reiterate the market growth rate of 10% and its intentions to grow faster than the market as it makes a bigger push into the U.S.,” writes RBC analyst Mark Sue in a preview report Tuesday. “Near term, Nokia is enjoying rapid growth in Africa, strong trends in India and China, and inline contributions from Europe,” Sue continued.

Nokia had 38% of the world’s cell phone market at the end of last year and it edges closer every day to a 40% slice of that sweet cake.

While mighty Nokia isn’t completely immune to economic downturns, it has a secret weapon that other phone makers don’t: a dominant presence in faster-growing developing markets.

Last year, 56% of Nokia’s net sales came from Asia, Latin America, the Middle East and Africa, while Europe and the U.S. accounted for 39% and 5%, respectively. This quarter, that gap will probably widen even more, with the volume of handsets sold in developing regions growing at a much faster pace than in more mature markets.

Nokia’s limited exposure to the U.S. reduces near-term risks and offers an opportunity for share gains through 2008, Oppenheimer analyst Ittai Kidron said in a recent report. “Its strong position in the low end and emerging markets, the market’s strongest growth regions, offers upside,” says Kidron.

To help retain its “strong position,” Nokia has developed a wide range of inexpensive phones for countries like India, where millions of people buy their first handset each month. Earlier this month the company came out with four new entry-level devices, including the Nokia 1680 “classic” — its cheapest cameraphone yet at about $80. The company hopes that, as consumers in these countries upgrade, they’ll keep buying Nokia.

That doesn’t mean that Europe and the United States – where there’s more of an appetite for pricey multimedia devices with large profit margins – aren’t important markets for Nokia. While Nokia sells a much higher volume of phones in emerging markets, Europe is still its single most profit- and revenue-generating region.

Some analysts worry that Nokia’s NSeries of multimedia devices is stale, and the company is long overdue to introduce an iPhone competitor. Rivals LG, Samsung and Sony Ericsson all unveiled touchscreen phones at the CTIA wireless trade show earlier this month.

One thing’s for sure – it will take a lot of cheap handsets to make up for slowing growth on the mid- and high-end market.

And that just the solid act people are looking for.

“I think we will see that the macro economic slowdown didn’t cause them to miss,” says one money manager who holds Nokia stock. “And bottom line, Nokia will show that it’s still the dominant force in handsets.”

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