April 12, 2011 – By Alexei Oreskovic
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SAN FRANCISCO (Reuters) - The investor spotlight will land squarely on new Google Inc Chief Executive Larry Page, overshadowing decent, but uninspiring first-quarter financial results when the company reports its earnings on Thursday.
Less than two weeks after the Google co-founder officially took the CEO reins, investors are hungry for details about Page's management plans and strategy as the search giant faces sharp competition from Facebook and Apple Inc, and intensifying regulatory scrutiny.
Page's performance on Thursday's quarterly conference call with analysts and his views on spending and competition will be closely parsed by investors -- if the famously media-averse 38-year-old shows up in the first place, that is.
Google is keeping tight-lipped about whether Page will actually participate in Thursday's earnings conference call. While the list of tech CEOs that skip such quarterly calls includes Microsoft Corp's Steve Ballmer and Apple's Steve Jobs, some analysts and investors say a no-show by Page for the first call of his tenure would send a negative signal to Wall Street.
"Myself and the Street would be collectively disappointed and shocked if he was not" on the call, said Macquarie Research analyst Ben Schachter.
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Shares of Google, which underperformed the market in 2010, are down roughly 9 percent since the company announced in January that Page would replace Eric Schmidt, who had held the top job for the past decade.
Page moved swiftly to streamline decision-making at Google's upper ranks during his first days on the job, but investors are anxious about how the management change could affect the company.
"What impacts the stock? Uncertainty. If he doesn't clear up any uncertainty, that's another overhang," said Schachter.
Analysts estimate that Google, which has beat Wall Street's revenue targets for the past six consecutive quarters, increased net revenue by 25 percent year-over-year to $6.32 billion in the first quarter, with adjusted earnings per share of $8.11, according to Thomson Reuters I/B/E/S.
Gleacher & Co analyst Yun Kim said the nearly 1 percent decline that Wall Street expects in Google's first-quarter net revenue, after a very strong fourth quarter, could provide clues about Google's longer-term growth potential.
"It comes down to the fundamental issue of whether or not the acceleration of their business in Q4 ... -- was that really improving fundamentals or greater seasonality?" said Kim.
"When you start showing seasonal patterns in your business, then your growth rate is peaking," he said.
Google is ramping up efforts to supplement its core search advertising business with revenue from display and mobile ads. And the company is increasingly focused on social networking and the local ad market, where rivals Facebook and online coupon service Groupon rule the roost.
Page's attitude toward spending on such strategic areas, as well as on less crucial initiatives such as self-driving cars, and the potential impact on Google's profit margins are high on investors' list of concerns.
"They have been increasing their hiring and other cap ex," said Ryan Jacob, chairman and chief investment officer of Jacob Funds which counts Google among its top holdings. "With Larry taking over, people may be wondering if they take it up further."
Even before Page moved into the CEO suite, Google announced various spending-heavy measures, including 10 percent across-the-board pay raises and plans to add more than 6,000 employees this year. In the fourth quarter, Google's sales and marketing spending surged 55 percent year-on-year to $902 million.
Meanwhile, the increasing regulatory scrutiny of Google has become a greater concern for investors.
Google's deal to acquire online travel software company ITA Software for $700 million was approved with by U.S. regulators with stiff conditions on Friday, and U.S. regulators are exploring whether to open a formal probe into Google's Internet search ranking practices, a source told Reuters last week.
"In the last two years the sensitivity about Google becoming more dominant has gone up, so this definitely is an overhang," said Caris & Co analyst Sandeep Aggarwal.
(Reporting by Alexei Oreskovic; Editing by Richard Chang)