The Earnings Bell Tolls for Dell
By Corey Hajim

(FORTUNE Magazine) – The stock of Dell Computer (DELL, $24) has been on a long slide, and Dell's May 8 announcement that first-quarter earnings and revenue growth would be less than expected--the company cited "pricing decisions"--gave it another downward shove. Shares have fallen 17% this year, bringing them back to where they were five years ago and giving the stock a P/E of 16 (based on the past 12 months' earnings)--the cheapest level since the mid-'90s. Does that mean the battered stock is a buy?

While most Wall Street analysts see Dell's current woes as part of a long-term slump, not a temporary dip, Brian Alexander of Raymond James thinks this is a good moment to get in. He's well aware of Dell's challenges. For years its mold-breaking direct-sales model allowed it to undercut the competition, he notes. But with PC prices falling across the board, that's no longer such a big advantage. In addition, the company missed an opportunity by passing on AMD chips, some analysts say, because they are more efficient than Intel chips, extending PC battery life and reducing heat in servers.

Most important, perhaps, Dell is facing fierce pressure from other PC makers. "Some of their competitors are willing to make less money," says Alexander. "For example, Acer's operating margins are in the 2% range, whereas, Dell, in its PC business, is more likely in the 6% range." But Dell's biggest headache may be newly invigorated Hewlett-Packard. CEO Mark Hurd has resuscitated the company's sales force, cut its cost structure, and gained share in the consumer PC business.

Despite all the the negatives, Alexander thinks the stock is attractive. "If I can buy a great business at a good price, even with near-term turbulence, that is what leads to outsized returns, not buying it when everybody loves it."