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Nokia's Cost-Cutting Looks Good Only on Paper

Richard Saintvilus

NEW YORK ( TheStreet) -- As much as I've wanted to like Nokia's prospects as a good turnaround candidate, it doesn't appear this is a story that's going to end well. Nokia has made great strides to improve its profitability, despite what bulls may want to believe, but the company's still hemorrhaging market share.

If management has been unable to capitalize on the collective weaknesses of Apple and BlackBerry , investors have to wonder if Nokia can ever turn things around, especially since Samsung's new Galaxy S4 has been considered "underwhelming."

Nokia's first-quarter earnings were disappointing.

Companies don't reach the depths Nokia has reached without having grossly mismanaged the business. By the same token, I'm willing to give management credit for at least improving Nokia's financial position. Unfortunately, profitability is also a side effect of how well your core product is received in the marketplace.

In the case of Nokia, the fact that revenue declined 20% this quarter suggests consumers remain unimpressed. While that's not entirely a surprise the fact that revenue declined almost 30% sequentially certainly was shocking, especially since the Lumia 920 was seen as a significant catalyst. Consequently, Nokia's device business continues to suffer, losing 32% this quarter.

The 5% drop in Nokia Siemens Network, or NSN, the joint venture with Siemens , also came out of nowhere. NSN has been Nokia's saving grace for some time. Nokia had shown meaningful progress, growing NSN 5% in the fourth quarter and 14% from the third quarter. So the fact that NSN posted a 30% sequential decline is glaring, especially given Nokia's persistent struggles in the devices business.

However, profitability was okay. Management's cost-cutting efforts did well, offsetting Nokia's poor sales. The fact that adjusted gross margin improved by almost four points deserves some applause. It's not Apple's level of profitability, but it is progress -- both NSN and the devices businesses improved over last year. Accordingly, Nokia was able to reverse last year's loss in operating income into a modest profit.

While profitability is something on which investors can hang their hat, the fact is, cutting costs only looks good on paper. Everything else in this report was a disaster, led by a 25% decline in overall unit sales, which also plummeted 28% sequentially. Fittingly, Nokia's Lumia platform was the lone bright spot in this quarter, advancing by almost 30% sequentially.

Unfortunately, Lumia's shine was not enough to stop the bleeding in Nokia's smartphone business, which fell again this quarter by almost 50%. Also, I'm beginning to wonder if Nokia's partnership with Microsoft is now a Trojan horse.

At the onset of their agreement, Microsoft was seen as a potential catalyst for Nokia. This relationship can still very well be what both companies envisioned. However, given the weak adoption of Microsoft's mobile operating system efforts, it's worth speculating if Nokia couldn't do better by itself. Where's the evidence Nokia's market position is any better since these two came together?

I have no doubt that Microsoft has plenty of motivation to make this relationship work. But from a practical point of view, investors should be wondering if their fortunes would change if Nokia had the latitude to pursue other operating systems including Google's Android. Not only would Nokia enter the conversation as a "true" Apple rival, but the company can begin to seize the same platform advantages as Samsung.

Along similar lines, I do question why management hasn't placed an emphasis providing cheaper phones, which is what has worked so well for Samsung against Apple. If Nokia truly cares about restoring its long-term health, capitalizing on the potential growth in emerging markets is a strategy that management shouldn't ignore, especially with mobile phone units down 21% this quarter.

As much credit as management deserves for the bottom-line improvements, the top line is where it matters the most, at least in this sector. Given Nokia's poor margin leverage and weakening market position, there are still plenty of fundamental challenges that still remain.

In the meantime, Nokia investors have to wonder how long the company can survive given the rate at which its global market share is eroding. While the company's cash flow is certainly improving with increased cost-cutting, I still see no compelling reason to hold this stock beyond a hope and a prayer.

At the time of publication the author had a position in AAPL.

This article was written by an independent contributor, separate from TheStreet's regular news coverage.

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