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IBM Earnings: Will Big Blue Follow Intel's Optimistic Outlook?

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If investors were steeling themselves for weak tech earnings, they got to exhale in a big way following Intel's optimistic outlook on Tuesday. And if Intel isn't seeing any domestic or global business slowdown, as the company's chief financial officer Stacy Smith told me following the earnings news, it stands to reason that IBM might be in a very good position to sound the same optimistic tone.

We've already gotten hints that this would be a pretty good quarter for Big Blue, following the company's announcement in February that it was raising the low-end of its guidance, and would fuel inject its stock buyback program to the tune of $15 billion. Nothing like ponying up some big-time cash for your own stock as a way to show the market how optimistic you are about your company's future.

And investors seem to buying into the story: IBM shares have been on the move since that February news when shares were hovering around $105, and trading now right near its 52-week high which was $121 and change. The Street expects $1.45 a share on $23.63 billion, though FactSet Research is looking for $1.50 on $23.8 billion. IBM has already told analysts it would earn more than $8.25 for its full year 2008, so the focus will be on how the company plans to get there, where the growth will come from, and what it's looking for in the current quarter.

Interestingly, with so much optimism around this stock right now, the folks at whispernumber.comsay the whisper is actually in line with analysts, even though IBM has beat estimates in 19 quarters, while meeting or missing estimates in 15 quarters. Interesting bet -- with the bar set kinda low--with stats like that, especially coming on the heels of the Intel news and a renaissance of optimism taking the broader markets higher today.

The key here is what IBM sees domestically and internationally as far as tech spending is concerned. A new mainframe from IBM seems to be selling well, and it ain't cheap. If customers are spending big, and if IBM can maintain double-digit earnings growth, it should put an exclamation point on the news from Intel yesterday.

There's been so much concern about a softening in tech spending, and IBM as big as it is, should offer up the best glimpse yet into the global spending scene, especially since the company generates more than 65 percent of its revenue from overseas customers. The company's services business and backlog also will be closely watched. Numbers there should be in the $14 billion range, with new bookings between $9 billion and $11 billion.

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IBM could be the ultimate defensive play. A tech company that isn't merely a safe place to park your money while you're looking for something better; it could be a safe place to park your money and also enjoying more than merely healthy growth. The flip-side of course is that IBM offers something other than stability and optimism. There's been some air blowing into IBM shares lately and if the company disappoints in any of its metrics, that "popping" noise could be very loud.

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