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Originally published Friday, July 19, 2013 at 7:56 PM

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Microsoft stock sinks on weak financial results

Disappointing financial numbers lead to speculation that shareholder activism may be on the rise. Some are concerned about succession plans — or the lack of them — and have questions on how Microsoft competes in an environment focused on mobile technology and cloud services.

Seattle Times technology reporter

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A day after Microsoft reported fourth-quarter financial results far below what Wall Street analysts had expected, the company’s stock price plunged 11.4 percent — the biggest single-day drop since January 2009.

Microsoft shares closed Friday at $31.40, down $4.04.

The slide reversed some three months of gains, in which Microsoft stock went from the high $20s to an intraday high of $36.43 on Tuesday this week, when it closed at $35.96.

There are rumblings and speculation that the fourth-quarter miss and the stock-price stumble could more easily pave the way for an activist shareholder, such as ValueAct Capital, to push for a seat on the company’s board.

Earlier this year, Jeff Ubben, founder of investment firm ValueAct, divulged that his company had purchased some $2 billion of Microsoft stock, giving it a less than 1 percent stake in the company.

ValueAct would have to notify Microsoft sometime between July 31 and Aug. 30 if it intends to bring any nominations for a board seat or issues for a floor vote during Microsoft’s annual meeting, which is typically held in late November.

ValueAct already has talked with some members of Microsoft’s board about securing a seat, according to a Reuters report Friday. Ubben could not be reached for comment.

Several of Microsoft’s top institutional investors have also recently contacted ValueAct, expressing concern about succession plans — or lack thereof — for Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer, Reuters reported. They also were concerned about Microsoft’s strategy and execution as the company seeks to become more nimble in a computing world increasingly focused on mobile devices and cloud services, Reuters said, citing unnamed sources close to the matter.

Ballmer said recently that Microsoft’s board has a succession plan, but he did not divulge details about it.

“Our view is that the stock would benefit from the potential for ValueAct to gain a board seat given the likely agenda they might present to investors,” analyst Rick Sherlund, of financial-services firm Nomura, wrote in his note to investors.

“We are of the view that the ability to leverage a 1 percent position with the support of large shareholders who have been frustrated with the share-price performance of Microsoft and set forth an agenda to better realize shareholder value is possible,” he wrote.

Sherlund maintains a “buy” rating on Microsoft stock and a $38 price target. But he has revised downward his earnings per share forecast for 2014, from $3.02 to $2.75. He said, “Bottom line, it was a very disappointing quarter in that there was an expectation that things might be looking better for the company.”

Indeed, Microsoft’s stock had been doing well of late, and investors had generally felt that the company’s strength in the corporate market would more than offset the decline in the PC market.

Also, the company’s move toward subscription models, rather than traditional licensing models for its software services, “seemed to be resonating well across” Wall Street, Sherlund wrote.

Instead, “it was discouraging to read down the table and see that every division was below expectations,” he said.

Sid Parakh, an analyst with investment firm McAdams Wright Ragen, said “the sell-off was a little sharper than I would have thought, clearly reflecting the surprising extent of the revenue and earnings shortfall.”

Parakh is maintaining a “hold” recommendation and a $34 price target for Microsoft stock. But he, too, revised his earnings per share forecast for fiscal 2014, from $2.90 earnings per share to $2.67. He also lowered his revenue forecast from $84.3 billion to $80 billion.

Janet I. Tu: 206-464-2272 or jtu@seattletimes.com. On Twitter @janettu.

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