Intel and Wal-Mart Offer a Dismal View of Economy’s Future

By Don Miller
Associate Editor
Money Morning

Two of America's prominent business bellwethers gave hazy views of what's in store for the U.S. economy today (Wednesday) as Intel Corp. (INTC), reported dismal earnings and Wal-Mart Stores Inc. Chief Executive Officer (WMT) H. Lee Scott said he doubted a quick recovery is in the cards.

Intel, the world's biggest chipmaker, said first-quarter profit fell 55% because of slowing computer demand. And for the second period in a row, the company issued less detailed sales and profitability forecasts than it usually does.

"While we saw some stability in the first quarter, from a historical perspective we're dealing with a lot of economic uncertainty," Chief Financial Officer Stacy Smith told Bloomberg News in an interview. "It's still a very volatile economic environment."

After posting a 90% decline profit in the fourth quarter of last year, Intel said profit dropped 55% in the first quarter of 2009.

Intel posted net income of $647 million, or 11 cents a share, down from $1.44 billion, or 25 cents a share a year earlier. The company managed to beat analysts' consensus projections of 2 cents a share because it benefited from a favorable tax rate.

While Intel's revenue fell 26% to $7.15 billion, Chief Executive Officer Paul Otellini said he believes PC sales reached a trough last quarter.

"We are seeing signs that a bottom in the PC market segment has been reached," Otellini said on a conference call. "I believe the worst is now behind us from an inventory correction and demand level adjustment perspective."

Orders improved throughout the quarter, with consumer sales holding up better than corporate. PC sales usually decline from the first to the second quarter, before rising again in the third when computer makers increase production to meet back-to-school demand.

Nevertheless, the computer industry bellwether said there's too much turbulence to allow a precise projection for the second quarter. The lack of conviction in Intel's projections left some analysts perplexed.

"We needed to hear more conviction in Intel's guidance," Bill Kreher, a St. Louis-based analyst for Edward Jones, told Bloomberg. "Investors want more visibility."

After bottoming in January, chip orders have improved, leading other analysts to conclude that computer sales will start to climb, benefiting Intel customers such as Dell Inc. (DELL), and Hewlett-Packard Co. (HPQ).

"The question is, 'Is management being conservative?'" Wedbush Morgan analyst Patrick Wang told Reuters. "Especially with the CEO talking about PC sales bottoming out."

Wal-Mart Boss Skeptical of Fast Recovery

Meanwhile, Wal-Mart CEO Lee Scott said Monday that he does not expect a quick turnaround for the U.S. economy, which he believes will continue to suffer throughout the first half of the year.

Speaking at the National Retail Federation's annual conference in New York, Scott said the current downturn also might have long-term effects on consumer spending patterns, representing a fundamental change.

"I'm not necessarily convinced that just when all this liquidity and things hit, if you're going to have the same immediate desire to go back to consumption and debt," he said. "There are a lot of young people who have learned what it's like when you are living on the edge and the bad times come."

Last week Wal-Mart posted lower-than-expected December sales and cut its fourth-quarter profit forecast, showing not even the biggest retailer on the planet is immune to the current economic turmoil.

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