IBM IBM just finished a tough week. IBM fell 2% after an investor briefing on Wednesday, dragging the Dow Jones Industrial Average (DJIA or Dow) down over 100 points. And as the Dow reversed course to end up 2% on the week, IBM continued to drag, ending down almost 3% for the week.
Of course, one bad week – even one bad earnings announcement – is no reason to dump a good company's stock. The vicissitudes of short-term stock trading should not greatly influence long-term investors. But in IBM's case, we now have 8 straight quarters of weaker revenues. And that HAS to be disconcerting. Managing earnings upward, such as the previous quarter, looks increasingly to be a short-term action, intended to overcome long-term revenue declines which portend much worse problems.
IBM leadership appears to have lost its way
This revenue weakness roughly coincides with the tenure of CEO Virginia Rometty. And in interviews she increasingly is defending her leadership, and promising that a revenue turnaround will soon be happening. That it hasn't, despite a raft of substantial acquisitions, indicates that the revenue growth problems are a lot deeper than she indicates.
CEO Rometty uses high-brow language to describe the growth problem, calling herself a company steward who is thinking long-term. But as the famous economist John Maynard Keynes pointed out in 1923, "in the long run we are all dead."
Today CEO Rometty takes great pride in the company's legacy, pointing out that "Planes don't fly, trains don't run, banks don't operate without much of what IBM does." But, powerful as that legacy has been, in markets that move as fast as digital technology any company can be displaced very fast.
Just ask former CEO Scott McNealy and his leadership team at Sun Microsystems. Sun once owned the telecom and enterprise markets for servers – before almost disappearing and being swallowed by Oracle Oracle in just 5 years (after losing $200B in market value.) Or ask former CEO Steve Ballmer at Microsoft, who's delays at entering mobile have left the company struggling for relevancy as PC sales flounder and Windows 8 fails to recharge historical markets.
Managing earnings is not managing for long-term success
CEO Rometty may take pride in her positive earnings management. But we all know that came from large divestitures of the China business, and selling the PC and server business to Lenovo. As well as significant employee layoffs. All of which had short-term earnings benefits at the expense of long-term revenue growth. Literally $6B of revenues have been sold off just during her leadership.
Which in and of itself might be OK – if there was something to replace those lost sales. Even if they didn't have any profits – because at least we have faith in Amazon creating future profits as revenues zoom. But IBM was far late to the cloud, and hasn't shown it has anything to leapfrog industry leaders.
The REAL problems – R&D cuts, higher debt, massive stock buybacks
What should terrify investors about IBM are two things that are public, but not discussed much behind the hoopla of earnings, acquisitions, divestitures and all the talk, talk, talk regarding a new future.
CNBC reported that 121 companies in the S&P 500 (27.5%) cut R&D in the first quarter. And guess who was on the list? IBM, once an inveterate leader in R&D, has been reducing R&D spending. The short-term impact? Better quarterly earnings. Long term impact????
The Washington Post reported more this week about the huge sums of money pouring out of corporations into stock buybacks rather than investing in R&D, new products, new capacity, enhanced marketing, sales growth, etc. $500B in buybacks this year, 34% more than last year's blistering buyback pace, flowed out of growth projects. To make matters worse, this isn't just internal cash flow spent on buybacks, but companies are actually borrowing money, increasing their debt levels, in order to buy their own stock!
And the Post labels as the "poster child" for this leveraged stock-propping behavior…. IBM. IBM
"in the first quarter bought back more than $8 billion of its own stock, almost all of it paid for by borrowing. By reducing the number of outstanding shares, IBM has been able to maintain its earnings per share and prop up its stock price even as sales and operating profits fall.
The result: What was once the bluest of blue-chip companies now has a debt-to-equity ratio that is the highest in its history. As Zero Hedge put it, IBM has embarked on a strategy to "postpone the day of income statement reckoning by unleashing record amounts of debt on what was once upon a time a pristine balance sheet."
In the case of IBM, looking beyond the short-term trees at the long-term forest should give investors little faith in the CEO or the company's future growth prospects. Much is being hidden in the morass of financial machinations surrounding acquisitions, divestitures, debt assumption and stock buybacks. Meanwhile, revenues are declining, and investments in R&D are falling. This cannot bode well for the company's long-term investor prospects, regardless of the well scripted talking points offered last week.
Connect with me on LinkedIn, Facebook and Twitter