Two major security-software vendors released their latest quarterly results this week. It’s instructive to look at how the markets reacted to those results and to look ahead and see what we can discern about each company’s prospects moving forward.
Symantec, which had been struggling in prior quarters, surpassed the expectations of market watchers in its second quarter, which ended October 2. Excluding certain costs, profit was 36 cents a share; analysts had predicted 33 cents on average, according to a Bloomberg survey. Including revenue from acquired companies, sales were $1.48 billion, exceeding the average estimate of $1.43 billion, but down three percent from the same quarter a year ago.
Symantec saw six-percent growth in its sales of security software to consumers. Sales in the storage and server-management segment fell nine percent, while security and compliance sales slid three percent. Symantec, which had previously experienced sales-execution problems in enterprise-security markets, seems to be rectifying that problem, with several high-value deals coming to fruition in vertical markets such as financial services, the federal government, and telecommunications.
Geographically, Symantec saw growth in China specifically and Asia more generally, and it saw a semblance of stability beginning to return to its business in North America.
Extending a previous practice, Symantec will buy back up to $1 billion in shares through public and private transactions. Symantec still has about $57 million remaining under its current share-repurchase plan. The company has bought back over $1.9 billion in shares since the last plan was approved in June 2007.
Share-buyback programs usually enhance the value of remaining shares, but they also have the effect of making it easier for executives to reach performance-based benchmarks because the earnings-per-share value increases as the number of shares in circulations decreases.
The overall theme of Symantec’s results was stabilization, and the market was appreciative. Symantec shares went up after the results were announced.
If Symantec benefited from the market’s low expectations, McAfee was undermined by the market’s relatively high expectations.
You wouldn’t know it from most of the business-press headlines regarding McAfee’s results, but the company actually did well in its fiscal third quarter.
McAfee reported sales of $485.3 million, up 18 percent from $409.7 million in the same period last year, just below the $486.6 million that Wall Street had predicted. Meanwhile, the company reported profit, excluding items, of 62 cents per share for the third quarter, above the average forecast of 60 cents, according to Thomson Reuters I/B/E/S.
The company is seeing slower growth on sales of anti-malware products to consumers. Up eight percent to $177 million in the quarter, consumer sales grew at their slowest rate since 2007. On the other hand, corporate sales grew 25 percent to $308 million, even though McAfee CEO Dave DeWalt said enterprise sales were affected by reduced sales of PC-based anti-malware software to companies that have fewer employees than they had previously. With fewer employees, companies have less need for PCs and PC software, including security products.
DeWalt made an interesting point about software sales to consumers. He noted that accounting rules require McAfee to book revenue from each consumer sale over 36 months. As such, he said, revenue reported in any one quarter is “a backward looking indicator.”As for what transpired specifically in the third quarter, DeWalt said consumer bookings grew 12.5 percent.
Looking ahead, McAfee foresees fourth-quarter profit, excluding items, of 61 to 65 cents per share on revenue of $505 million to $525 million. Analysts expect McAfee to earn 63 cents per share on revenue of $507 million.
McAfee fell just short of expectations on the revenue side, and it was punished accordingly by analysts and investors alike. Conversely, Symantec wasn’t a train wreck, as some analysts had anticipated, so it was rewarded for taking steps toward stability.
Although some of the business press focused on Symantec’s pickup in consumer business, the real battle between it and McAfee will occur in enterprise accounts, from SMBs all the way up to the largest corporations. Even though investors like the margins associated with anti-malware sold to consumers, that market is intensely competitive, even more so now Microsoft finally has a free consumer offering, Microsoft Security Essentials (MSE), that is good enough to cut into the for-pay sales of Symantec, McAfee, Trend, and others.
Neither Symantec nor McAfee will admit that Microsoft is a threat on the consumer front, but, behind the scenes, they must be concerned about market erosion.
Symantec is making considerable effort to rectify the problems it had in its SMB channel. It also won some big enterprise deals. Increasingly, what it does in enterprise markets will be critical to its long-term prosperity. Although evidence suggests McAfee is gaining ground on Symantec in business markets, “big yellow” is getting back to basics and will make its smaller rival earn any further advances.
It won’t be easy for either vendor. Even as they’re getting pinched competitively in the consumer space, Symantec and McAfee confront constrained corporate budgets.
According to Bloomberg, Goldman Sachs Group reported this month that enterprise global spending on security programs next year will grow about 5 percent, compared with an 8 percent increase for all enterprise software.