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What it will take for Microsoft to return to growth

Satya Nadella, Microsoft CEO
Stephen Brashear | Getty Images
Satya Nadella, Microsoft CEO

Microsoft's quarterly sales are expected to fall short of last year's — marking the fifth consecutive year-over-year decline — when the company reports earnings after the close of trading Tuesday.

Wall Street analysts on average expect the tech giant to post fiscal fourth-quarter revenue of $22.14 billion on earnings per share of 58 cents, according to a Thomson Reuters survey of 23 analyst estimates. This would mark the smallest year-over-year drop in quarterly revenue since the fourth quarter of last year.

Overall, revenue is expected to decline 2 percent for fiscal 2016, but the company is headed in the right direction: Revenue growth is expected to return next quarter. Analysts project Microsoft to report 2 percent growth in the September quarter and 4 percent growth for fiscal 2017.

Perhaps, then, the worst is behind Microsoft.

One bright spot is certainly the company's cloud business — up 120 percent last quarter — as more companies migrate to the cloud and Microsoft closes the gap with market leader Amazon Web Services. (Microsoft recently announced a high-profile new partnership with General Electric.)

Azure is emerging as a public cloud winner, said Morgan Stanley analyst Keith Weiss, who has an overweight rating on the stock and a $64 price target.

Microsoft is proving that it can successfully leverage existing relationships to offer customers a combination of on-premise and cloud products, a unique advantage over cloud rivals AWS and, Alphabet's Google Compute, said Stifel analyst Brad Reback in a note to investors Thursday. Reback has a buy rating on the stock and a $58 price target. He expects Azure to have grown 95 percent year over year to a $630 million business.

Though Office 365 — the subscription to access Office applications and services in the cloud — offers lower margins than Microsoft's declining software licensing business, it is reaching an inflection point, said Reback. It now has more than 22 million subscribing customers and recurring subscription revenue should continue compensating for lost license revenue.

"Microsoft continues to make steady progress with its cloud transition and expect Office 365 and Azure will be healthy contributors to the top and bottom line for the next several years," he said.

Office growth is expected to turn positive and accelerate starting in fiscal 2017, with subscription growth finally offsetting licensing declines, said RBC Capital Markets analyst Ross MacMillan in a note to investors on Tuesday.

As the Nokia saga draws to a close, Wall Street is breathing a sigh of relief.

Microsoft is in the process of restructuring its money-losing phone business, cutting up to 1,850 jobs and limiting its phone business to a few Windows 10 and Lumia devices. By shuttering most of its hardware activities, Microsoft will save between $500 million and $800 million, said Reback. (MacMillan put potential savings even higher, at $950 million.)

Though it is too soon for Microsoft's $26.2 billion acquisition of LinkedIn — expected to close later this year — to impact earnings, analysts will be listening for commentary regarding the rationale behind the deal, timing and integration on the earnings call.

"We believe there are a number of angles for Microsoft to drive growth," said Reback.

LinkedIn is expected to begin to contribute to Microsoft's business starting in the third quarter of fiscal 2017, said MacMillan who is "cautiously positive" on the deal.

The company's growth profile already looks "very attractive," he said. Excluding currency fluctuations, Microsoft has grown earnings per share by 14 percent so far this fiscal year.

"This is unrivaled at mega-cap peers," said MacMillan. "We think Microsoft deserves a premium, especially given our conviction on earnings growth sustainability." He has an outperform rating on the stock and a $61 price target.