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The Zacks Analyst Blog Highlights: Microsoft, Nokia, IBM, Intel and CNA Financial

CHICAGO, Jan. 24, 2014 /PRNewswire/ -- Zacks.com announces the list of stocks featured in the Analyst Blog. Every day the Zacks Equity Research analysts discuss the latest news and events impacting stocks and the financial markets. Stocks recently featured in the blog include the Microsoft Corp. (Nasdaq:MSFT-Free Report), Nokia (NYSE:NOK-Free Report), IBM (NYSE:IBM-Free Report), Intel (Nasdaq:INTC-Free Report) and CNA Financial Corp. (NYSE:CNA-Free Report).

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Today, Zacks is promoting its ''Buy'' stock recommendations. Get #1Stock of the Day pick for free.

Here are highlights from Thursday's Analyst Blog:

Surprise! Microsoft Crushes Estimate

Flying straight in the face of another lackluster overall Tech industry earnings season, Microsoft Corp. (Nasdaq:MSFT-Free Report) just posted a big beat on earnings in its fiscal Q2 2014 (ended December). Earnings of 78 cents per share came from $23.7 billion in sales for the quarter. The revenue figure is basically in-line with the Zacks Consensus Estimate of $23.68 billion, but the earnings number is a 14.7% positive surprise.

This is the best performance for Microsoft in at least the last four quarters. Earnings beats, when they've come, have tended to be on the modest side. Also, analysts had been downwardly revising estimates throughout the quarter, with a consensus of 68 cents having come down from 75 cents early in Q2. And with Nokia's (NYSE:NOK-Free Report) announcement earlier today that its Windows-based Lumia phone sales were down over the holiday season,  investors may have been a tad wary about Microsoft's numbers after the bell today.

In regular Thursday trading, MSFT shares rose slightly, but are up 3% in the after-market. The stock is now within a couple bucks of its 52-week high.

Revenues for its Surface tablet fared notably well, bringing in $893 million for Microsoft's holiday quarter. CEO (for now) Steve Ballmer also cited a favorable enterprise business, while pointing to a 13% gain in Devices and Consumer. Commercial revenue was up 10% in the quarter.

Of course, plenty of questions remain for the world's biggest software firm: Ballmer will be retiring sometime this year, there is still a $7.2 billion matter of buying all of Nokia's smartphones and tablets business, and can Surface continue its sales pace and take market share from its tablet competitors? These shall no doubt be addressed during the company's conference call.

For now, though, with other big tech firms like IBM (NYSE:IBM-Free Report) and Intel (Nasdaq:INTC-Free Report) coming out with disappointing earnings numbers this season so far, it's nice to see one of the big players finally gaining some traction on their own terms.

CAN Financial Upped to Strong Buy

On Jan 23, Zacks Investment Research upgraded CNA Financial Corp. (NYSE:CNA-Free Report) by a notch to a Zacks Rank #1 (Strong Buy).

Why the Upgrade?

CNA Financial has been riding on a strong growth momentum ahead of its fourth-quarter and full-year 2013 results, which are slated to release on Feb 10, 2014. The growth impetus stems from improved core fundamentals throughout 2013, which are cushioned by strong operating leverage and a modest capital position.

CNA Financial also outperformed the one-year S&P 500 index, which posted an increase of 24.1% against a return of 42% clocked by the company. Additionally, this global property and casualty (P&C) insurer delivered positive earnings surprises in the straight last three quarters, with an average beat of 23.3%.

On Oct 28, CNA Financial reported third-quarter 2013 operating earnings per share of $1.00, which outpaced the Zacks Consensus Estimate of 76 cents by 31.6% and the year-ago quarter number of 80 cents by 25%.

Higher premiums and lower catastrophe losses improved the combined ratio and bottom line across both P&C and specialty segments. Higher rates and improved underwriting efficiency are further expected to drive the results in the upcoming quarters. Strong expense, risk and claims administration along with effective credit management score well with the investors and ratings agencies.

CNA Financial has been experiencing rising earnings estimates following its robust third-quarter results and a strong outlook affirmed by ratings agencies. The Zacks Consensus Estimate for 2013 moved north by 2.7% to $3.45 per share in the last 60 days. The estimate for fourth-quarter 2013, in particular, shot up 4.9% to 85 cents a share.

Moreover, the Most Accurate estimate for CNA Financial's 2013 earnings stands at $3.63 a share, resulting in an Earnings ESP of +5.2%.

Further, the estimate for 2014 rose 0.9% to $3.40 over the same 60-day period. No downward revision in estimates was witnessed for either year.

Today, Zacks is promoting its ''Buy'' stock recommendations. Get #1Stock of the Day pick for free.

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