Microsoft’s Mixed Results Cap Late Sell-Off

Even before Microsoft released its quarterly results late Thursday, stocks were already headed lower.

Stocks finished the day with strong gains, yet ended 1% off their highs after turning lower in the final hour of trading. The jitters ahead of Microsoft’s earnings report turned out to be prescient, as the software giant released mixed results after the close.

Microsoft’s earnings of 47 cents a share, or $4.39 billion, were a few pennies ahead of Wall Street estimates, but sales of $14.45 billion — flat with the year-ago quarter — came in just below estimates. Strong Xbox sales drove the company’s results in the quarter.

Microsoft’s current quarter sales guidance of $15.5 to $15.8 billion was at the high end of $15.56 billion estimates, but earnings guidance of 45 to 48 cents a share was a little lighter than the 48 cents analysts were expecting, according to Thomson Financial.

On the bright side, the company’s first look at fiscal 2009 (the company’s fiscal year 2008 will end in June) was better than expected, with sales of $66.9 to $68 billion and earnings per share of $2.13 to $2.19. Wall Street was looking for $66.52 billion and $2.10.

Microsoft shares lost 5% in after-hours trading.

Stocks rose during the day, as an unexpected drop in weekly jobless claims and strong results from Ford and Apple offset a steep decline in new home sales. Merrill Lynch surged after saying it won’t cut its dividend to preserve capital, a sign that subprime mortgage writedowns may be nearing the end.

Apple gained nearly 4% on its results, but fell by that much on renewed margin concerns.

LSI, EDS and Mercury Computer surged after beating estimates, and Nextwave Wireless jumped on plans to sell spectrum holdings.

Insight Enterprises and Vasco Data Security fell on their results.

The Nasdaq rose 23 to 2428, the S&P climbed 9 to 1388, and the Dow rose 85 to 12,848. Volume rose to 4.46 billion shares on the NYSE, and 2.35 billion on the Nasdaq. Advancers led by a 20-12 margin on the NYSE, while decliners led by a 15-14 margin on the Nasdaq. Upside volume was 66% on the NYSE, and 65% on the Nasdaq. New highs-new lows were 54-93 on the NYSE, and 45-124 on the Nasdaq.

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