By Alastair Sharp
(Reuters) - Shares of Research In Motion dropped nearly 5 percent on Thursday after an influential analyst said RIM would likely warn that it came up short on BlackBerry shipments this quarter and offer an even bleaker outlook for its flagship smartphone.
The latest version of the smartphone - using the legacy BlackBerry 7 operating system that RIM will replace later this year - has failed to impress demanding U.S. consumers, Jefferies analyst Peter Misek wrote in a note to clients.
Tepid shipments are likely to translate into weaker-than-expected results for the company's fourth quarter ending March 3, he said. That could lead RIM to tip its hand before the formal release of its results on March 29.
Perhaps just as worrying, Misek said, consumer acceptance for RIM's smartphones is starting to erode in Latin America and Europe, where sales of cheaper devices have provided a cushion for the Canadian company as it falls behind the pace in the United States.
"There is a greater than 50 percent chance that RIM will negatively pre-announce the February quarter," said Misek, who is rated five stars by Thomson Reuters StarMine for the accuracy of his earnings estimates on RIM.
FIVE QUARTERS OF DECLINE IN U.S.
It would not be the first time that the Waterloo, Ontario-based company has decided to come clean before releasing its results. It issued a sharp profit warning ahead of third-quarter results in December, sending its shares into a tailspin. It also revised its forecasts last April before the end of the quarter.
RIM's U.S. sales have fallen for five straight quarters, as consumers embrace Apple's iPhone and high-end devices running Google's Android software. The company has typically offset the decline with rising sales elsewhere.
"We believe Street numbers will likely be revised down given the lack of major new products in the near term and continued sales challenges due to competitive pressure from both low-end and high-end devices," said Misek, who rates the stock "underperform".
RIM's shares have slumped 80 percent from a peak in February last year as it misjudged the shifting landscape and botched the launch of the PlayBook, a poor-selling alternative to Apple's iPad tablet.
It has delayed the planned launch of new BlackBerry smartphones running on the same QNX system as the PlayBook until late 2012. Analysts view the launch of what RIM has dubbed the BlackBerry 10 as a "make or break" event.
Misek said RIM likely shipped fewer than 11 million legacy phones in the December-February quarter, a sharp drop from the previous three months as well as from the year-earlier Christmas season, traditionally the strongest period of the year for smartphone sales.
In December, RIM said it expected to ship between 11 million and 12 million handsets in the Christmas quarter ending March 3.
APPLE'S IPHONE 5 ON THE HORIZON
He lowered his quarterly earnings estimates to 69 cents a share on revenue of $4.2 billion, down from his earlier expectation of 82 cents a share on revenue of $4.6 billion.
At least for now, the average analyst forecast is for 83 cents a share on revenue of $4.58 billion, according to Thomson Reuters I/B/E/S. RIM is aiming for between 80 and 95 cents a share and revenue of between $4.6 billion and $4.9 billion.
Misek is not alone in seeing lackluster BlackBerry shipments. Morgan Stanley analyst Ehud Gelblum dropped his estimate to 9.6 million from 11.5 million earlier this month.
Adding to RIM's woes, Apple is expected to launch an iPhone 5 before RIM puts out a QNX-based BlackBerry 10 device. Misek, who expects the new RIM device in September, said the debut of the new iPhone was particularly troubling for RIM, and he cut his price target on RIM's U.S.-listed shares to $12 from $15.
The shares slipped 4.6 percent to $13.51 by mid-morning on the Nasdaq. RIM's Toronto-listed shares are down 5 percent at C$13.33.
(Additional reporting by Sruthi Ramakrishnan in Bangalore; Editing by Frank McGurty)