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3 Things to Know About IBM’s Sinking Stock

  • Ian Salisbury @salisburyian
Oct. 20, 2014 SHARE 141020_INV_IBM Niall Carson—PA Wire/Press Association Images

IBM's shares plunged 7% Monday after a disappointing earnings report. Can tech's ultimate survivor transform itself one more time?

International Business Machines INTERNATIONAL BUSINESS MACHINES CORP. IBM -0.5913% has long enjoyed a unique status on Wall Street — a tech growth powerhouse that investors also see as a reliable blue chip, with steady profit growth and a hefty dividend. But with the rise of new technologies like cloud computing, Big Blue has struggled to maintain that balancing act.

Now investor confidence has suffered a big blow.

On Monday the company announced the results of a pretty lousy quarter. IBM’s third-quarter operating profit was down by nearly one fifth, and the company failed to generate year-over-year revenue growth for the 10th consecutive quarter.

Big Blue also revealed plans to sell-off its struggling semiconductor business, a move that involves taking $4.7 pre-tax billion charge against IBM’s bottom line. Actually, it is paying another company to take this unit off its hand.

While CEO Virginia Rometty acknowledged she was “disappointed” with IBM’s recent performance, she’s also pledged to turn the company around, led in part by IBM’s own foray into the cloud.

Now, you don’t get to be a 103-year-old tech company without learning to adapt. That’s what IBM famously did in the ’90s, when the computer giant started to shift away from profitable PC hardware in favor of consulting and service contracts for businesses.

But Monday’s dismal earnings show just how hard repeating that trick could turn out to be.

Here’s what else you need to know about the stock:

1) You can’t really call IBM a growth company anymore since its sales aren’t rising.

When it comes to revenues, IBM ranks behind only Apple APPLE INC. AAPL -0.4849% and Hewlett-Packard HEWLETT-PACKARD CO. HPQ 1.0238% among U.S. tech companies. On a quarterly basis, though, sales have actually shrunk for 10 periods in a row, including a 4% slide in the third quarter. The big culprit is cloud computing, in which businesses can access computing services remotely via the Internet.

Since the 1990s, IBM’s model has been premised on selling powerful, expensive computers to large businesses, then earning added profits on contracts to help firms run those machines. But the cloud lets companies rent, not buy, this computing power. “You only pay for what you use,” says Janney Montgomery Scott analyst Joseph Foresi. The result: IBM’s hardware revenues sank 15% last quarter.

2) IBM is racing to be a leader in cloud computing, but with mixed results.

The company has identified four alternative areas of growth. One is the cloud, the very technology eating into IBM’s hardware sales. Big Blue has spent more than $7 billion on cloud-related acquisitions. It’s also going after mobile, IT security, and big data, the analysis of information sets that are too large for traditional computers. An example of that is Watson. IBM’s artificial-intelligence project, which won Jeopardy! in 2011, is being marketed to businesses in finance and health care.

These initiatives have promise, but IBM’s size is a curse. For instance, the company’s cloud revenues jumped 69% to $4.4 billion last year, but with nearly $100 billion in overall sales, “it’s hard to move the needle,” says S&P Capital IQ analyst Scott Kessler.

3) The stock is now much cheaper than its tech peers, but it may deserve to be.

Investors willing to wait and see if these moves will transform IBM may take comfort in the fact that the stock looks cheap. What’s more, the shares yield 2.4%, vs. 2% for the broad market. This could make the company look like a good value.

But investors should tread carefully, says Ivan Feinseth, chief investment officer at Tigress Financial Partners. He notes IBM has spent $90 billion on stock buybacks in the past decade, which has kept the P/E low by increasing earnings per share. Yet none of that money was invested for growth, as evidenced by IBM’s sluggish annual growth rate. It is hard to imagine IBM outmuscling Amazon AMAZON.COM INC. AMZN -1.5903% , Cisco CISCO SYSTEMS INC. CSCO -1.0263% , Microsoft MICROSOFT CORP. MSFT -0.8395% , HP HEWLETT-PACKARD CO. HPQ 1.011% , and Google GOOGLE INC. GOOG -2.1328% in the cloud — and there are better values in tech.

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