updated 12/19/2006 9:55:07 AM ET 2006-12-19T14:55:07

Oracle Corp.’s strongest earnings streak since the dot-com boom may be losing its vigor.

At least that’s how it appeared to investors late Monday after the business software maker reported fiscal second-quarter earnings that merely matched analyst estimates — a letdown that overshadowed the latest gains that the business software maker has reaped from a two-year shopping spree that has bolstered its product line.

The disappointment appeared to stem from software sales that fell below management’s earlier forecasts.

The performance, coupled with a tepid forecast for the current quarter, damped Wall Street’s recent enthusiasm for Oracle, whose shares dropped by more than 2 percent in late trading.

The Redwood Shores-based company earned $967 million, or 18 cents per share, during its fiscal second quarter. That’s 21 percent more than net income of $798 million, or 15 cents per share, at the same time last year.

Revenue for the period totaled $4.16 billion, a 26 percent increase from $3.29 billion at the same time last year.

If not for expenses to cover the cost of its acquisitions and employee stock options, Oracle said it would have earned 22 cents per share — the same as the average estimate among analysts surveyed by Thomson Financial.

Oracle predicted it would keep pace with analyst projections again in its current quarter ending in February with earnings of 22 cents per share, excluding expenses unrelated to its ongoing business.

The cautious outlook raised concerns that either corporate America’s technology spending is tapering off or Oracle isn’t executing as well as it did earlier this year. Software industry analyst Bert Hochfeld believes Oracle’s disappointing sales is an isolated phenomenon that reflects some execution problems on its sales team and some customer misgivings about the company’s products.

Oracle management, though, believes several major deals that were expected to close in the last quarter will now be wrapped up next year instead. As an example, more than $10 million in revenue from an anticipated sale to discount retailer Wal-Mart Stores Inc. will likely be spread out over the next three quarters, Oracle Chief Executive Larry Ellison told analysts during a Monday conference call.

Those reassurances didn’t appear to sway investors. Oracle’s shares rose 23 cents to close at $17.91 on the Nasdaq Stock Market before the quarterly results were released, then retreated in extended trading.

The company’s stock price has climbed by more than 40 percent this year, driven by Oracle’s best financial streak since technology spending shriveled five years ago in the aftermath of the dot-com bust.

The company’s profit has increased by least 20 percent in four consecutive quarters, fulfilling a promise made by management when the company began snapping up other software makers in a flurry of deals that have cost more than $20 billion so far. The audacious Ellison had pledged only to pursue deals that will help the company boost its earnings by 20 percent annually.

“So far, so good,” Safra Catz, Oracle’s chief financial officer, told reporters during a Monday conference call. “We are trying to make sure we stay focused and don’t take any short cuts.”

Oracle has been hitting its financial targets by maintaining its leadership in the database software market while boosting its sales of business applications products that help companies, government agencies and schools automate a wide range of administrative tasks.

The company has mounted a more serious challenge to Germany-based SAP in the applications market primarily through recent acquisitions that included a $11.1 billion takeover of PeopleSoft Inc. and a $6.1 billion purchase of Siebel Systems Inc.

The deals wiped out two of Oracle’s biggest competitors and improved the company’s product line.

Investors initially were skeptical about the strategy, but have been won over by Oracle’s showing over the past year. The upturn has helped lift Oracle’s market value by about $30 billion since it wrapped up the PeopleSoft deal in late 2004, the first coup in its relentless expansion.

But Wall Street is now fretting about possible deceleration in Oracle’s growth because of the past quarter’s lackluster software sales — a closely watched barometer because the new licenses generate a steady stream of revenue from future product maintenance and upgrades.

Oracle’s software sales totaled $1.21 billion, a 14 percent increase from last year. Management had forecast an increase of 15 to 20 percent.

Catz told analysts Monday that Oracle’s software sales should rise by 16 to 22 percent in the current quarter.

Applications software has now become Oracle’s primary growth engine, partly because the demand for new database software has trickled off in the past few years.

Oracle’s sales of application licenses totaled $340 million in the latest quarter, a 28 percent increase from last year.

Sales of Oracle’s database and so-called “middleware” software — which helps applications run — rose by 9 percent to $867 million during the quarter.

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