Will HP’s good news cheer tech investors?

November 20, 2007, 12:45 AM UTC
HP CEO Mark Hurd. Photo: HP

There you have it, tech investors. Hewlett-Packard’s earnings might be the best news you’ll hear for a while.

And the numbers were quite good. The world’s largest PC maker reported fiscal fourth quarter revenue and profit that once again surpassed analyst expectations, thanks to strong sales of laptops and printer ink. HP’s (HPQ) sales to businesses were strong during the quarter, flying in the face of investor fears that CFOs are starting to clamp down on spending as high oil prices and subprime lending woes threaten the broader economy.

HP logged revenue of $28.3 billion and profit of $2.2 billion, up 28 percent from a year ago. Sales were particularly strong in emerging markets; sales in Brazil, Russia, India and China were up a combined 37 percent.

Seagate’s slick new storage for Mac and PC (Photos 1/9)

But even those strong numbers seemed insufficient to lift investors out of their tech stock funk. Though HP shares were up after hours, they hadn’t recovered from their 2.6 percent drop in regular trading, much less their 6 percent decline since the month began.

Other tech shares have fallen more steeply in November, and they didn’t perk up much after HP’s good news. Apple (AAPL), Google (GOOG) and Research in Motion (RIMM) are all down more than 15 percent from their meteoric rise in recent weeks, and none of them got a big lift during after-hours trading.

New design in HP’s business displays (Photos 1-5)

Instead of looking to any one company’s strong results for inspiration, tech investors seem to be paying attention to the health of the overall economy as an indicator of whether consumers and companies will continue to open their wallets for technology gear. Holiday sales might turn out to be the best indicator of the U.S. consumer’s appetite — and so far, several large retailers are predicting a solid but uninspiring season. If holiday sales aren’t strong, analysts fear that some mid-sized companies will delay spending and put a damper on tech industry growth.

Those fears didn’t show up in HP’s numbers — but while company executives were clearly proud of the results, they also sounded several notes of caution.

The company offered a forecast for fiscal 2008 that some analysts called conservative, once they factored in the fact that a weaker dollar will make overseas profits look bigger than they otherwise would. But CEO Mark Hurd made no apologies for his careful approach, saying that while the company feels good about its growth prospects, there are plenty of uncertainties ahead.

Microsoft’s Zune: The sequel (Photos 1-4)

“We build business models that don’t have exorbitant growth rates in them,” Hurd said during the earnings call with analysts, explaining that HP instead tries to control spending even in good times. “We’ll let the economy work its way through,” he said. “Hopefully it’s better than some of the doomsayers predict, and if it is, we hope to be able to benefit from that.”