Who Needs Facebook? MSFT Thriving on Its Own

[qi:053] This will be good news or bad news depending on how you feel about Microsoft, but the software company seems to be roaring back. And it has nothing to do with its overpriced, over-hyped 1.6 percent stake in Facebook.

Instead, it has more to do with the earnings report it delivered Thursday afternoon for its fiscal first quarter that ended Sept. 30. Beating the Street by six cents a share (its biggest earnings surprise in a few years), while showing $1.2 billion more in revenue than analysts had expected and a significant improvement in its operating margins (to 43 percent from 41 percent a year ago).

Not only was that good, it was way better than Wall Street seems to have been expecting. The stock was up at $35.50, as of this writing, in after-hours trading — surging 11 percent in less than an hour after Microsoft (MSFT) reported earnings. Here’s why I think that performance is so impressive.

First, it launches the stock back to a level it hasn’t seen since July of 2001 — more than six years ago. Microsoft reached as high as $31.84 on July 19 of this year. But the last time the stock closed officially above $35 was back when the tech bubble was still deflating. If Microsoft closes above $35 Friday, it will mark a six-year odyssey back to that level.

But that doesn’t mean Microsoft will necessarily be overpriced again. Its net profit for the last 12 months total $14.9 billion, or three times its net income six years ago. In other words, Microsoft’s stock may soon be back at its 2001 level, but its profits have tripled in the meantime. Its after-market market value of $333 billion is only 22 times that profit.

Second, Microsoft had a $300 billion market cap at the end of Thursday, before its earnings report, about 150 percent of Google’s (GOOG) and roughly double that of Apple’s (AAPL) on the same day. That’s a lot of market cap, and to get it to rise 11 percent means pumping in increasing it by $33 billion dollars.

As the chart from Google Finance shows, Microsoft’s stock rose to $35.81 from $32.04 in 45 minutes. In that frenetic three-quarters of an hour, when tens of millions of shares were traded, the value of the stock was rising an average of $12 million a second.

So this is a bigger vote of confidence for Microsoft from Wall Street than the headline figures may indicate. Everyone was expecting a pretty strong quarter from Halo 3 and Xbox 360 sales, but the actual numbers were even stronger. Improbably, 85 million copies of Vista have been sold.

(One weak spot remains online advertising, which thanks in part to investments in aQuantive and other properties, posted a loss of $264 million.)

This quarter may mark a turning point when investors stopped looking at Microsoft as an aging, arthritic giant that could at best hope for maintaining slow and steady profits with the occasional if beefy dividend thrown in. After all, EPS grew 29 percent, to 45 cents a share.

That profit growth rate may be a league below Apple and Google. And Microsoft is still far from being an innovation powerhouse like either of those companies. But it marks a significant improvement from the Microsoft of a few years back, when it would have sounded odd to say what we know today: Microsoft is alive and well, and still in the race.