MarketWatch First Take: Microsoft and Alphabet results show Wall Street only cares about AI

Microsoft Corp. and Alphabet Inc. both reported mostly strong results Tuesday, but the disparate reactions from investors showed that Wall Street only cares about artificial intelligence right now.

While Microsoft shares
MSFT,
+2.86%

rose 4% in after-hours trading following the company’s latest report, Alphabet shares
GOOG,
-9.86%

GOOGL,
-9.77%

dropped 6% as Wall Street got the sense that AI is manifesting differently in the companies’ cloud businesses.

Microsoft surprised investors with 28% constant-currency growth in its Azure cloud-computing business, above the company’s own forecast and the projection for 25.6% growth that analysts were modeling on average. While Microsoft continues to see “optimization” challenges as customers remain conscious about their spending, the company is also benefiting from AI tailwinds in the cloud.

Companies looking to beef up their AI offerings are often looking to add AI services for their customers through additional cloud services, so they don’t have to do as much internal development themselves. In addition, AI offerings ranging from chatbots to tools that can streamline the writing of reports require ever more computing power, and both Azure and Google Cloud are starting to offer new software applications to address those needs.

Microsoft Chief Executive Satya Nadella called AI a “unique and different” factor that was helping Azure trends. “Given our leadership position, we are seeing complete new project starts, which are AI projects,” he said in response to an analyst question about the sustainability of cloud growth rates.

In addition, Microsoft, which has invested heavily in ChatGPT-creator OpenAI, offers an Azure OpenAI service that more than 18,000 organizations are now using. Some of these customers are new to Azure.

Microsoft Chief Financial Officer Amy Hood forecast that Azure revenue growth should be around 26% in constant currency in the fiscal second quarter, driven by new workload trends and with the growing contributions from AI.

Investors seem less confident that Alphabet is seeing the same tailwinds in its Google Cloud business, especially as that segment showed its slowest quarterly growth since Google began breaking out results that way back in 2019. Cloud revenue of $8.4 billion, with growth of 22%, was $250 million shy of consensus estimates on Wall Street, according to Colin Sebastian, an analyst with Baird. That overshadowed an upbeat performance in the company’s advertising business.

When one analyst asked Alphabet executives about the deceleration in the revenue growth of its cloud business, Chief Executive Sundar Pichai was vague but said that customers are being selective of where they are spending their IT budgets.

“On cloud, what I would say is overall, we have definitely started seeing customers looking to optimize spend,” Pichai said. “We leaned into it to help customers, given some other challenges they were facing, and so that was a factor.”

Alphabet is seeing “a lot of interest in AI,” but it remains to be seen whether that’s contributing materially to its financial performance just yet.

“Google Cloud missed consensus revenue expectations (although in line with Baird) on slowing growth, and we believe consistent with the view that newer Gen-AI workloads will take time to move the needle,” Sebastian wrote in a note to clients.

Insider Intelligence senior analyst Max Willens added that Google Cloud is facing tough competition, and while the business seems to have traction with AI startups that “may bear fruit in the long run, it is not currently helping Google Cloud enough to satisfy investors.”

Wall Street clearly is looking to AI to fuel better growth rates and help offset sluggish macroeconomic trends. The poster child for that dynamic is Nvidia Corp.
NVDA,
-3.78%
,
which is expected to single-handedly drive earnings growth for the information technology sector thanks to booming demand for its AI hardware.

Read: Big-tech results will decide ‘where we go from here’ amid investor caution. They would fall if it weren’t for this one company

Given economic pressures, it’s becoming obvious that companies without much of an AI story to contribute this quarter will continue to fall out of favor with investors.

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