updated 11/16/2006 10:59:04 AM ET 2006-11-16T15:59:04

Dell Inc. said Wednesday that federal regulators had begun a formal investigation into the computer giant, which had been part of an informal inquiry since August.

Dell also said it was postponing the release of its third quarter earnings report — scheduled for Thursday after markets close — until sometime later in the month.

The company said the earnings report delay was unrelated to the widening Securities and Exchange Commission probe.

A company spokesman told The Associated Press that the company did not know what the SEC was specifically investigating.

In a press release issued late Wednesday, Dell said the delay was due to the “level of complexity the company is facing in the preparation of its preliminary results.”

“Dell continues to cooperate with the SEC, and is committed to resolving all issues in connection with the investigation and regaining compliance with all SEC filing requirements as soon as possible,” the company added.

Rob Enderle, an analyst for the Enderle Group, said it was too early and there just isn’t enough information to know what the implications of the formal investigation could be for Dell.

“This is pretty serious,” he said. “It looks like they’ve got a significant discrepancy that they can’t reconcile. My guess is it’s something that they misclassified. The thing is, we don’t know enough other than that there are problems.”

The third-quarter report will be posted as press release and won’t include the usual conference calls where analysts and reporters can ask questions of founder Michael Dell and Chief Executive Kevin Rollins.

Analysts, on average, had been looking for third-quarter earnings of 24 cents per share on sales of $14.44 billion, according to a poll by Thomson Financial.

Dell has yet to file its second quarter earnings with federal regulators because it has been trying to resolve unspecified accounting issues with its internal audit committee.

Wednesday’s news is the latest blow for the Round Rock, Texas company, which lost its No. 1 ranking in personal computer shipments to rival Hewlett-Packard Co. in October, according to market research firms IDC and Gartner Inc.

Two days before posting disappointing earnings in August, Dell recalled more than 4 million faulty laptop batteries made by Sony Corp.

Sony-made batteries have since been recalled by nearly every laptop maker in the world, including Toshiba Corp., Apple Computer Inc. and Lenovo Group Ltd.

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