When buybacks fail… a quick look at IBM’s performance $IBM

I typically look for underappreciated, high FCF businesses that are shareholder friendly. As I was screening for new ideas, an old giant popped up – IBM. This is a personal opinion, but with so much focus on Google, Facebook, Amazon, Microsoft and Apple it seems as though no one even discusses IBM anymore. Could this be a Microsoft-in-2011 moment? At that time, MSFT was trading at a P/E of 9-10x and was viewed as a slow, lagging behemoth, and certainly not exciting anymore… just a dividend paying stock. They got a new CEO after many years of Balmer and reignited excitement and ingenuity at the company. The rest is history.

IBM currently trades with a 4.8% dividend yield, 9.5x 2020e EBITDA and 10.1x 2020e EPS. The business looks like it hasn’t grown much at all in the past, but does have some exciting segments like Watson (“Cognitive Solutions”) which is wildly profitable – in 2018, Cognitive Solutions had nearly 68% gross profit margins and 38% EBITDA margins…

Should we compare Microsoft then to IBM? Clearly over the same time frame as Microsoft, IBM has been floundering.

Cognitive Solutions is clearly an exciting segment, but at the end of 2014 the company did $93BN in revenue and $24.6BN in EBITDA. In the past 12 month, the company did $77BN in revenue and $16.6BN in EBITDA. Moreover, if we go back to the end of 2003, the company’s market cap was $161BN. When they reported Q3’19 results, IBM’s market cap was $120BN. Meaning after nearly 16 years, no real value had been created.

So what happened? What were the drivers of these abysmal returns?

Clearly, a significant driver is the changing technology landscape. Over this time period, IBMs standing as a leader in tech has been eroded by competition. Over this time period, net income is up only $1.2BN, from $6.5BN to $7.7BN, which is a 1% CAGR.

With its changing position, investors no longer valued the company as an exciting leader. At the end of 2003, IBM was trading at 24.5x LTM earnings. By the end of Q3’19, it is trading at 15.5x LTM earnings. That de-rating of 10x had a significant impact on its stock performance.

Secondly, I think the company made some really poor investments. What investments you ask? Buying its own stock in large amounts. Admittedly without these buybacks, the price performance of IBM would have been abysmal.

I pulled the company’s cash flow statement over these ~16 years and analyzed what it did with cash. While we have hindsight bias, the company deployed too much into its own stock instead of trying to strengthen its position in a changing climate. You could even argue that they should have done more acquisitions. Excluding the recent RedHat acquisition, which was $33BN, the company did not actually spend that much on acquisitions over this time frame.

Outside of acquisitions, you could even argue that they should have just distributed cash to shareholders with special dividends. Again in hindsight, that would have allowed investors to purchase other businesses that are allocating capital for growth.

Let me be clear, I am a huge fan of buybacks and not trying to beat the drum that politicians like to use (buybacks aren’t an efficient use of resources and stifle growth etc.). One of my favorite companies is LyondellBasel (ticker LYB). While it is a cyclical, commodity chemical company operating near peak, they’re capital allocation decisions make sense. First, invest in their equipment for safety. Second, ensure that they are well prepared in an evolving landscape. Third, return cash to shareholders while managing a prudent balance sheet. They have bought back 10% of their outstanding shares each year for the past few years.

In this case, it seems like IBM bought back shares just to buyback shares. I wouldn’t be surprised if we see an activist approach IBM. Following Elliot’s success with AT&T, it seems like an activist could approach IBM regarding a spin-off or sale of its Cognitive Solutions business. I think a split of “old business” and “new business” similar to what happened at HP could be very interesting.

 

 

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