(Reuters) - Oracle Corp forecast earnings for the current quarter that are higher than expected, as well as robust software sales, offering some reassurance to investors hoping that global technology spending is holding up.
Its shares rose 3 percent after it said new software sales, a gauge of future profit because they generate high-margin long-term service contracts, increased 17 percent in its first fiscal quarter, ended August 31. Analysts had expected 15 percent.
Oracle also forecast software sales growth for the current quarter in a range of 6 percent to 16 percent, which was much higher than the flat to 10 percent estimated by ThinkEquity analyst Brian Schwartz.
Executives also said they are confident of market share gains against rivals such as SAP in Europe, a region that along with the Middle East and Africa accounts for a third of its business but is grappling with a widening economic crisis.
"I'm certainly encouraged by that license revenue growth. In the near term that's a very positive indicator," Schwartz said, even as he noted that the company's overall revenue forecast was lighter than expected.
Oracle forecast a 4 percent to 8 percent gain in revenue this quarter, translating into sales of $9 billion to $9.3 billion, slightly lagging forecasts of $9.36 billion.
It also forecast earnings before one-time items of 56 cents to 58 cents per share for the current quarter, compared with the 56 cents expected by Wall Street.
The outlook for worldwide technology spending darkened after warnings by major technology vendors from Dell Inc to Cisco Systems Inc. Governments are scaling back purchases to reduce deficits while corporations are tightening budgets to cope with an uncertain economic picture.
Oracle, which competes with SAP in selling software to corporations and public agencies, reports results a month before its rivals -- giving investors a first peek at July and August this year -- and is watched for the latest insights into industry trends.
A stronger-than-expected European performance -- partly credited by executives to market share gains against arch foe SAP -- helped boost sales last quarter.
However, Richard Davis, an analyst at Canaccord Genuity, noted that the European countries in most trouble -- Greece, Ireland and Spain -- were not key markets anyway. "They're doing well in the markets where they should be doing well," he said.
The company, which is run by flamboyant Silicon Valley billionaire Larry Ellison, on Tuesday reported revenue of $8.37 billion for the fiscal first quarter. This is just a touch ahead of Wall Street's estimate of $8.35 billion and up 11.6 percent from $7.50 billion in the year-ago period.
"We just had a solid quarter in Europe," said President Mark Hurd. "I would be cautious that this may not be macro but maybe more Oracle-specific. We're hiring in Europe."
As well as software, Oracle sells server computers following its purchase of Sun Microsystems last year. Overall hardware sales -- a weak spot in Oracle's otherwise robust numbers -- slipped 1 percent to $1.67 billion, lighter than expected as the company sacrificed sales for profitability.
The company said it expects another weak quarter for hardware and forecast sales in a range of flat to down 5 percent in the current quarter.
"The outlook seemed fine," said Canaccord's Davis. "They've done this three quarters now -- slightly lower revenue growth and better margin growth. They're doing the right thing. We'll see how it plays out but for now they're in good shape."
Margins climbed to 54 percent from 48 percent in the previous quarter, reflecting a strategy of moving toward higher-end servers and relinquishing volume sales growth.
Net income rose to $1.84 billion, or 36 cents share, from $1.35 billion, or 27 cents a share, in the same quarter the year before.
Excluding unusual items, Oracle earned 48 cents per share compared with analysts' expectations of 46 cents a share, according to Thomson Reuters I/B/E/S.
The company also announced a quarterly cash dividend of 6 cents per share to be paid November 2.
Shares of the world's No. 3 software maker rose 3 percent to $29.25 in extended trading, after closing down 2.3 percent at $28.35 on the Nasdaq.
Reporting by Sinead Carew in New York and Edwin Chan in Los Angeles; Editing by Richard Chang and Steve Orlofsky