Investors flinch ahead of RIM earnings (and who can blame them?)

Shares drop 2.6% despite unannounced warning in early December

Early this month Research in Motion (NASDAQ: RIMM) tried to pre-cushion the blow the Canadian company expects its stock to suffer when it announces fiscal third-quarter earnings after Thursday's market close.

RIM's unscheduled warning sent shares down 10% on Dec. 2, and company executives no doubt hoped to put the stock hit behind it (at least until Q4's round of bad news) by mixing in what I at the time called "delusional happy talk" with the negative earnings heads-up.

It hasn't worked. On Wednesday, shares of RIM fell 40 cents, or 2.6%, to 15.08 after dropping to as low as 14.80, the lowest price since March 2004.

Seems that as bad as RIM said Q3's numbers will be, investors and analysts expect them to be worse.

From MarketWatch:

“The investment community has basically stepped away from valuing RIM on a fundamental basis, so they are looking at what is the residual value here,” analyst Jeff Fidacaro of Susquehanna said in an interview.

That's analyst-ese for saying investors are close to drawing a chalk line around RIM's body. Even the value investors -- who themselves often ignore market reality because they focus myopically on ratios and numbers -- are averting their eyes.

The truth is, there's no reason to expect that RIM can turn things around. It's competing against much larger companies in Apple and Google. Its aura of invincibility in the enterprise has long since been shattered. And co-CEOs Mike Lazaridis and Jim Balsillie seem helpless to stop the bleeding.

About all shareholders can hope for at this point is an acquisition at a premium price, and even that won't recover much of the value the company has lost in 2011 alone. Shares are down 74% this year, with plenty of downside ahead if the fourth quarter is as bad as RIM said it would be.

Of course, it won't be. It'll be worse. Take it to the bank. Or your broker.

RIM would have been better off seeking a buyer about a year ago. Now it's missed that opportunity, and shareholders have been left holding the shrinking bag.

For all the talk about the ineptitude of the Yahoo and Hewlett-Packard boards, I think we can add the RIM directors to that conversation. The company's decline and changing conditions in the mobile-device market have been obvious to anyone over the past two years, and pep talks and hail Marys should have been flatly ignored in the RIM boardroom. ("You know what's going to save us? The PlayBook!")

Shareholders should be outraged.

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