salesforce.com Makes a Sales Pitch

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You have to figure that when salesforce.com (NYS: CRM) reported earnings last month -- beating Wall Street estimates for both sales and profits, and issuing guidance ahead of analyst expectations -- it expected investors to be impressed. They weren't.

Instead of polite applause and a few handfuls of tickertape, salesforce.com received catcalls from the peanut gallery and a 10% haircut to its stock price. Why? Primarily because a few analysts still refuse to track the numbers that management wants them to focus on -- "constant currency deferred revenue growth" -- and instead stubbornly insist on following the nearly as-arcane concept of billings.

This has created a conundrum: Wall Street seems to consider billings the be-all and end-all of salesforce.com's business -- the key barometer telling us whether salesforce.com is winning its fight to replace installed software on PCs with on-demand software in the cloud and steal the business-software market right out from under rivals such as Microsoft, SAP, and Oracle. In contrast, salesforce.com doesn't seem to think "billings" is even a number worth reporting.

This week, company CFO Graham Smith made his latest appeal for investors to look beyond the billing issue. At a meeting with analysts on Tuesday, Smith warned analysts against trying to combine reported revenue on salesforce.com's income statement with changes in deferred revenue on its balance sheet and estimating from this what the company's actual billings were in any given quarter. According to Smith, analysts are overlooking quirks of its subscription business model, such as how salesforce.com bills clients for its services and when it chooses to recognize revenue as having been earned. Result: Their musings on billings are just so much noise,and not indicative of the health of the business.

Stop all the "noise"
Why all this debate over esoteric accounting concepts? It's simple, really. At salesforce.com's current price, analysts can no longer use ordinary concepts of value to justify the buy ratings they've been slapping on this stock. They have to come up with another metric to explain their enthusiasm for a rapidly growing revenue stream that deposits virtually no profits on the bottom line.

For the rest of us, though, the question is simpler: Do you think it's reasonable to pay a dollar today to own a company that, at current rates of profit generation, would need so many years to earn that dollar back for you? I don't. That's why I'm heading over to Motley Fool CAPS right now to (virtually) short the stock. I'd encourage you to do likewise.

At the time this article was published In real life, Fool contributorRich Smithdoes not own (or short) shares of any company named above. The Motley Fool owns shares of Oracle and Microsoft.Motley Fool newsletter serviceshave recommended buying shares of Microsoft and salesforce.com, creating a bull call spread position in Microsoft, and shorting salesforce.com. We Fools don't all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has adisclosure policy.

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