What To Do With ALU – Part 2

Over the past several months I have written often about my positive view on the communications equipment sector, particularly stocks with exposure to service provider capital spending. One of my favorite names as a play on this theme has been ALU.  I continue to remain favorable on stocks exposed to service provider capital speeding and in particular, ALU.  This week, the sector has had a strong performance, and I think the bias will likely continue to be positive in the coming months. The main drivers to the sector performance this week were: 

1. Positive earnings and outlook from Ciena on Tuesday as well as its positive commentary on the global 100G optical spending cycle

2. Positive mid-quarter bookings commentary from the CEO of Juniper at a Wall Street Investor conference on Tuesday as well as his positive commentary on the service provider router market

3. The sale of Vodafone’s stake in Verizon Wireless back to Verizon for $130 billion, of which about half will be in the form of cash.  Vodafone is likely to use part of this cash to increase capital spending in its other properties in Europe, which could form the beginning of a capital spending recovery in Europe.

Specific to ALU, there were two other perceived positives:

1. The sale of Nokia’s cell phone/device unit to Microsoft, which will add over $7 billion in cash to Nokia’s balance sheet.  Investors are hoping that once the device unit sale closes in 4Q13, the dramatic increase in cash at Nokia will enhance the probability of Nokia acquiring the wireless division from ALU.  Earlier in the year Nokia bought out Siemens’ portion of the NSNS JV and, together with other divestments in wireline infrastructure, has become focused primarily on wireless infrastructure and services.  A potential sale ALU’s wireless business to Nokia is something I have written about in the past as being a positive for ALU if it were to occur given ALU’s lack of scale in wireless.  Such a sale make ALU a more focussed company and more of a pure play on IP Routing and Optical where it has scale and technology leadership. 

2. The new CEO of ALU, Michel Combes, spoke at an investor conference and emphasized his number one priority is generating positive cash flow, in a great part through successful implementation of his “Shift” restructuring plan and generating at least $1 billion in asset sales.  I think Michel is more willing to consider a sale of the wireless unit (or part of it) than the prior CEO, but I think it is fair to say he will continue to focus on improving the wireless division’s margins and revenue growth rather than hope or depend on an asset sale as the main course of action.  Michel seems more focused on returning ALU to profitability and positive cash flow than the prior management team and less wedded to the prior strategy of keeping ALU being an end-to-end equipment supplier.  The fact that ALU hired an ex investment banker as its new CFO, also suggests “deal making” to enhance the cash position of the company may be a higher priority than in the past.

My sense is the positive spending commentary from Ciena and Juniper, the likelihood that European spending can only get better given a more cash rich Vodafone and the beginning of the 4G LTE upgrade cycle from China Mobile starting in 4Q13 will continue to provide a positive backdrop for technology companies exposed to service provider capital spending.   While Cisco’s surprisingly soft earnings report from a few weeks ago put a damper on the sector, most of Cisco’s issues were related to tough year ago comparisons in Japan, weak spending from certain emerging markets and China (which may partly be due to political issues) and a  declining set top box business.  These are not indicative in my view of the service provider spending catalysts I mentioned above.

I continue to be positive on ALU and remain long the stock but highlight that it remains a volatile stock, especially after the very strong performance of over 200% off the bottom in the past year. 

Disclosure: NT Advisors LLC may in the past, present or future solicit and/or generate consulting revenues from any company mentioned in this post.

Capex Continues Its Slow Drift Upwards

Following up on my most recent post on July 8th, I continue to see a slow but steady drifting upward of both telecom and networking capital spending.  An increasing competitive environment in the US wireless industry, the likely ramp of LTE spending in China in 2014 and the beginning signs of telecom spending bottoming in Europe should support service provider centric communications equipment stocks. In addition, while enterprise centric IT spending has not shown as vibrant of a recovery, recent results from distributors and other supply chain companies are starting to point to a recovery in enterprise networking spending.

Stocks that I have liked and continue to like in this current environment are Cisco, Alcatel-Lucent and JDSU.  While I continue to like all three of these names, I think the potential returns from current levels are not as significant as the respective returns over the past year. Specifically, I am looking for returns of 10%-20% over the next several months to year for both Cisco and JDSU, while ALU may have a bit more upside, yet with more risk as well.

Both Cisco and JDSU report earnings this week.  Wall Street is generally looking for Cisco to report results that are slightly better than consensus estimates, while there is a mixed view on JDSU going into its earnings.  The overwhelming consensus that Cisco will report a slightly better than expected quarter is a bit concerning as there seems to be little controversy going into results as compared to prior quarters. Thus, expectations are generally positive for Cisco, which leaves little room for any disappointment in their results. Even so, however, most signs seem to be positive for Cisco going into its results, including positive data points from its supply chain in 2Q results (e.g. distributors, contract manufacturers etc.), the continued strength in telecom capital spending in the routing area (as witnessed from both ALU and Juniper results) and a generally improving IT spending environment.  In addition, Cisco will be reporting its fourth fiscal report when it reports this week, which is generally a strong bookings quarter for Cisco.   This should support a solid year end backlog when results are reported.

With regard to JDSU, there is a mixed view going into their results, as most of its peers in the test and measurement business (e.g. Ixia, Spirent etc.) reported disappointing results.  On the other hand, optical component suppliers (e.g. Finisar, Alliance Fiber etc.) have generally reported (or pre-announced) positive earnings results.  Thus, there is more uncertainty around JDSU’s upcoming results and guidance.  My sense is if JDSU does offer either disappointing results and/or guidance, Wall Street will look at it as a buying opportunity as both these business segments are likely poised to improve in 2H13.

For my recent views on the security market post Cisco’s acquisition of Sourcefire, check out the following link.

Disclosures: I am currently long Alcatel-Lucent, Cisco and JDSU.  NT Advisors LLC may in the past, present or future solicit consulting business or have generated consulting business from any company mentioned in this post.

Be Careful What You Wish For

Wall Street has generally focused its research and analysis on how SDN will impact the technology sector. I have also expressed my views on this topic in prior blog posts and have generally taken the view that Layer 4-7 appliance companies may be most at risk as such appliances will be replaced by software applications, merchant silicon semiconductor companies may be poised to benefit as replacement cycles compress for networking equipment once the control plane is detached from switches, and the jury was still out on traditional switching/routing companies depending on how these companies maintain some level of software differentiation over emerging “white box” networking suppliers.

Last week I attended the OFC/NFOEC optical conference and walked away with some additional elements of my evolving SDN investment thesis.  In particular, while traditional telecom operators should benefit from the potential benefits of deploying SDN in their network, they may be also be at risk as SDN will move the value away from the physical network to the application layer where differentiation will be determined by using software for service creation.  While traditional telecom operators are clamoring for SDN as a way to reduce vendor lock-in, lower network cost and enhance service creation, I am not yet sure how well they will compete against software-centric rooted large data center operators like Google in cloud computing services.  Thus, as the value moves away from the network to the software layer, SDN may actually be a threat to traditional telecom operators.  Companies that can help traditional telecom operators through this transition to allow them to better compete vs. software-centric data center operators, will ultimately derive significant value in the financial markets in my view. 

While OFC/NFOEC is supposed to be a conference specializing primarily on optical communications, SDN permeated several of the presentations and seminars.  What I found interesting in several of these presentations was the contrast of how large data center operators like Google and Facebook talked about their specific traffic patterns and resulting approach to building out their data centers and network and how they plan on using SDN in this regard vs. how traditional telecom operators discussed the same topic.    The following table shows some general initial takeaways I had from these presentations.

Attribute

Software Centric Data Center Operator

Traditional Telecom Operator

Traffic Mostly machine to machine Mostly end user driven
Hardware Disposable Asset Long Term Asset
Software Core competency Bundled By Vendor
Network Protection Algorithm Focused Network Focused
Benefits of SDN Service creation

Reduce complexity

Reduce cost

Lower cost

Remove vendor lock-in

Service creation

Let me reflect on a few points on the above table.  Large data center operators like Google and Facebook are fundamentally software companies while traditional telecom operators are generally not.  The ultimate virtualization of the network layer, which is a key objective of SDN, will make software more of a differentiator between data center operators than it is today and could further differentiate data center operators in business and cloud computing services vs. traditional telecom operators in the future.

For example, a large data center operator at the conference talked about how they replace their servers every 18 months in their data centers as it is more cost effective for them to purchase new servers than to run their data centers on older servers.   Now I am not sure what the replacement cycle for servers are in data centers are large telecom operators, but the mindset of hardware being disposable is not typically embedded within the culture of traditional telecom operators.

Another example that resonated with me at the conference was how several telecom operators (and data center operators) talked about how optical transport cost is now about 80% of the network core capital spending costs vs. 20% for routers whereas several years ago the percentages were exactly the opposite.  In addition, some of telecom operator presentations also talked about how network protection in the optical core sometimes equates up to 50% of the network cost.  So, if routing is becoming a much lower relative cost in the core than optics, why are telecom operators putting so much focus in SDN presentations on vendor lock-in within Layer 3 of their network? Clearly all types of cost reduction should be pursued and attacking 20% of the cost is still important, but if separation of the control/data plane in Layer 3 is only going to address 20% of your cost, perhaps there should be more focus on industry standards for optical layer control protocol (e.g. extension of Openflow to the optical layer) and API software development that attacks network utilization and restoration.

So in summary, my main conclusions from the OFC/NFOEC conference in relation to the evolving SDN market are:

  1. While traditional telecom operators will benefit from SDN, they may also be at risk given a more software centric culture and pedigree at certain large data center operators.  Companies that can help traditional telecom operators becoming more software savvy will likely become valuable companies.
  2. Optics is becoming a larger part of the network cost problem than routers for both data center and telecom operators.  Hardware and software companies that attack and solve this problem will likely become valuable companies. Although funding for such hardware initiatives is not in vogue, hardware companies could include merchant silicon companies for coherent optical DSPs or companies that innovate on integration of optical components (e.g. silicon photonics, indium phosphide).  Software companies could include companies that solve high costs associated with network utilization (given the very wide spread in network traffic between peak and average traffic loads) and network protection.
  3. While switching remains an important cost problem, it presents a much bigger problem within the data center in terms of network agility and an obstacle to service creation.   Data center operators want switching solutions that scale horizontally with the control plane disaggregated.

Oracle Goes Telecom II

Well it seems Oracle is serious about expanding its business with telecom operators as it announced today it will acquire diameter routing and SS7 signaling specialist Tekelec. This complements and adds to the announced acquisition of Acme Packet, which was announced just over a month ago on February 4th.   It looks to me that Oracle clearly wants to expand its business with telecom operators, but it is doing it in a very complementary and focused way through these two acquisitions.  So far, both acquisitions of Tekelec and Acme are providing Oracle relatively high margin revenues in the telecom market in the control, policy and management layers of the core of telecom networks.  This complements Oracle’s database revenues in telecom networks focused on business operations, end customer engagement and applications.

My two quick observations on Oracle’s recent telecom acquisitions are as follows:

Staying Focused, Watching SDN For New Entry Points: So far, Oracle has stayed away from entering network infrastructure products that actually carry network traffic and end user information (e.g. routers, switches, optical, etc.).   Oracle seems very focused on staying within the network management, policy and control supervisory layers of the network and not entering classic network infrastructure.  I suspect Oracle will stay true to this plan of action. In the future, however, as SDN and network virtualization develop as new markets, I would expect Oracle to look at taking advantage of this technology disruption as certain hardware based infrastructure functionality becomes software based running on the network core as potential future revenue opportunities.

Offensive and Defensive Acquisitions Given Cisco’s Software Aspirations: While Cisco and Oracle are not that competitive today, Cisco’s ambition to be more of a software company clearly suggests the two companies are more likely to compete for acquisitions and new markets in the future.  I believe Oracle has stepped up its acquisition efforts in the telecom vertical to gain a stronger foothold in telecom policy, control and management core as both an offensive move to expand its addressable market, but also as a defensive move against Cisco as it looks to expand its software business.  “Big IT” business models are converging and will continue to converge in the next several years.  As an example, five years ago neither Cisco nor Oracle sold servers, now they both do.  As network and storage virtualization open up new software markets for new entrants like Oracle and Big Data Analytics potentially open up new software markets for new entrants like Cisco, convergence among “Big IT” players Cisco, EMC, HP, IBM and Oracle is likely to continue to continue.

Telco Capex, Big IT War Chests and Optical Component Stocks

I have been traveling quite a bit these past couple of weeks and working on some consulting projects, but wanted to provide a quick update on topics I have been writing about in the past few months.

Telco Capex:  As a continuation of prior blog posts since November of last year, I continue to believe telecom capital spending trends will be positive in 2013 and the momentum still remains positive.  Telco operators are often like Wall Street in that they follow the “herd mentality”, namely, they tend to follow each other in either being offensive or defensive in their respective spending plans.  The setup for a favorable capital spending cycle in 2013 seemed good given the challenging 2011 and 2012 spending environment led to a period of underinvestment going into the build-out cycles associated with LTE, Data Center connectivity and residential broadband upgrades.  While 2011 and 2012 were years of preservation of capital and a defensive posture, 2013 and perhaps 2014 will be years where telecom operators go on the offensive by investing in new technologies in an attempt to gain share and offer new services.  I have already written about how we have seen such offensive moves in the US (e.g. AT&T and Sprint) and Europe (KPN, Telecom Italia, and DT).  Last week, we got the important endorsement of this trend from China Mobile, the wireless operator with the largest wireless capital spending budget in the world.  China Mobile announced its 2013 capital spending budget will be up 49% over 2012, well above analyst expectations of a 23% increase.  I continue to be favorable on telecom equipment stocks given this ongoing positive momentum in capital spending in 2013 and view Ericsson as a reasonable way to play this cycle.   It is important to realize here, however, that most telecom equipment stocks are cyclical, not secular, stocks. Ericsson is up over 50% from the bottom and is already discounting the recovery in telecom capital spending. The “easy money” likely has been made in the stock, although I still think there might be another 10%-20% upside from here.

Big IT War Chests: This past week Salesforce.com raised about $1B through a convertible note while EMC/VMWare announced plans to IPO their Pivotal Big Data/Cloud initiative sometime in the future.  I view both of these events as ongoing evidence how Big IT companies (e.g. Cisco, IBM, Oracle, EMC/VMWare, etc…) are gearing up for an M&A cycle to better position each of them in the battle for Everything Cloud (e.g. Big Data, SDN, Data Center Virtualization etc…).  Salesforce.com already has about $1.8B in cash/investments and generates over $500m a year in free cash flow. The company also has a very high PE multiple of almost 90x 2013 earnings.  Acquisition targets, especially private companies, may find taking Saleforce.com stock as too risky given the high multiple and would prefer cash.  I believe Oracle’s recent acquisition of Eloqua (announced in December) perhaps accelerated Saleforce.com’s desire to have a greater cash balance to have a greater war chest for future acquisitions. In order for Saleforece.com to compete for such acquisitions against more cash rich companies like Oracle, Cisco etc…, they needed to increase the cash balance.  EMC/VMWare on the other hand have the other problem.  In the past, VMWare provided EMC a high multiple currency to make stock based acquisitions, while EMC and VMWare both have had ample cash to make cash based acquisitions. The recent selloff in VMWare stock post reporting 4Q12 results, however, lowered VMWare’s forward P/E multiple to about 20x vs. the historical average of about 35x-40x.  The announcement of the potential IPO of Pivotal in the future helped both stocks and ultimately will provide EMC/VMWare another high multiple stock to make stock based acquisitions.    With Cisco aiming to be more of a software company, Oracle trying to expand more in the telecom space (e.g. Acme Packet acquisition) and all the Big IT companies striving to be leaders in Big Data, SDN and Everything Cloud, we are likely to see an increasing M&A cycle in 2013 and 2014 and these companies are getting their respective war chests ready.

Optical Component Stocks: Silicon Photonics vs. The Cycle: In a prior blog post, I expressed some concern on optical component stocks (e.g. JDSU, FNSR etc…) given the technological threat posed by the emerging Silicon Photonics technology.  I am still concerned about how Silicon Photonics initiatives at Intel and others as well as vertical integration efforts by large buyers of optical components like Cisco (through the acquisitions of CoreOptics and Lightwire), will impact future valuations and stock performance of optical component stocks.  While I still have this concern, the near term cycle of optical spending is likely to trump the longer-term risk of Silicon Photonics in my view.  In a way, Silicon Photonics will be to optical component stocks in 2013 like SDN was to networking stocks in 2012.  As a reminder, Cisco’s stock suffered in 2012 as SDN became a hot topic and VMWare acquired network virtualization specialist Nicira.  While SDN is still a hot topic, Cisco’s stock has performed well in the past several months as the company has beaten estimates, preserved its gross margin and SDN is not viewed a near term threat.  I think the optical cycle is recovering and we should see good spending trends in optical systems and components in 2013, as 2013 will likely be a recovery year after a difficult 2012. In addition, telecom capital spending trends continue to show positive momentum in 2013 as I mentioned above.  Thus, while there will continue to be a lot of discussion and analysis on how Silicon Photonics will impact optical component suppliers in the future, 2013 should be a year where optical companies beat Wall Street estimates.  I think such a playbook will allow optical stocks to further appreciate for a few more months.  Like telecom equipment stocks, optical component stocks are cyclical and they all have already appreciated significantly off the bottom.  Thus, upside from current levels may be limited and the stocks remain very risky and volatile. We should get further information on the status of the optical cycle and the threat of Silicon Photonics this week at the annual fiber optic OFC trade show, which I plan on attending.

Disclosure: I currently own Ericsson and JDSU mentioned in this blog.  NT Advisors LLC may currently and in the future solicit any company mentioned in this blog for consulting services.

Did Lloyd Carney Really Know About Q-Fabric When He Was At Juniper?

When a company has been struggling or experiencing an underperforming stock price for many years, an agent of change through new a new CEO is typically needed to attempt a turnaround.  When I was a Wall Street analyst, I would always listen very carefully to what a new CEO of a public company would say in their first public interactions with Wall Street.   In particular, I would listen to see if the new CEO was likely to be an agent of change or not and whether the initial comments seemed rational and well thought out.  A case in point many years ago that raised a yellow flag for me in a company in the TMT sector was when a new CEO of a company talked about bringing integrity/ethics back to the company was a priority.  Shortly after this first conference call, however, the new CEO was sued by his former employer for violating an anti-compete clause.  Maybe it was a coincidence, but the turnaround never happened in this company

One recent example of a positive change of CEO has been Marissa Mayer of Yahoo.  In watching her speak during a January 2013 Bloomberg TV interview, I was very impressed with how she acknowledged Yahoo’s current lack of presence in mobile, but how she planned to address this by leveraging mobile partnerships (e.g. with Facebook) and the daily habits people have using Yahoo for content around sports, stock quotes, weather, etc. as a path to a stronger presence in mobile.  There was no facade or setting ridiculous expectations, but rather a realistic assessment of the current situation and a reasonable path to improve the company’s position in mobile.  The interview of Ms. Mayer can be found here:

http://www.bloomberg.com/video/yahoo-ceo-says-personalization-is-future-of-search-XDvwyS~OTCOMXwWq~j8m2w.html

Ms. Mayer is also getting a lot of press lately about her decision to have Yahoo telecommuters return back to the office.  The reality is telecommuting does not foster a strong culture for technology companies in my view.  More importantly here, is Ms. Mayer is trying to change the culture at Yahoo.  She is trying to be the change agent the company needs.  For Yahoo to turn around and be a more important company in mobile and social networking, the company will need to work more together.  Since Ms. Mayer took only a two-week maternity leave, she is clearly practicing what she is preaching.

Now, let me reflect on another recent CEO change and my initial concern on some of the comments made by the new CEO.  Specifically, I am talking about Lloyd Carney, the new CEO of Brocade.  In looking at Lloyd’s background, he seems like a good choice for Brocade.  Lloyd was formerly CEO of Xsigo (which was acquired by Oracle) and Micromuse (which was acquired by IBM), the COO of Juniper and President of Nortel.  With such a strong background, Lloyd certainly has the qualifications and potential to be successful in being a change agent for Brocade and generating strong returns for its shareholders.

While Lloyd Carney’s background seems solid, I was confused with some comments he made in two recent public appearances as CEO of Brocade.  Specifically, Lloyd made some comparative and reflective comments on the Q-Fabric Data Center Switch, which was developed at Juniper Networks, a competitor to Brocade.  The two comments are shown below:

…. And I’m a technologist at heart, an engineer at heart. And the thing that attracted me most, primarily, to Brocade was technology. I mean, I saw the fabric. I was at Juniper as COO, so I knew how QFabric was created.

Source: seekingalpha.com

Brocade Communications Systems Management Discusses Q1 2013 Results – Earnings Call Transcript, February 14th, 2013

… The fabrics that compete with us today are the Juniper Fabric, which uses the QFabric, which uses the ASIC chipset that I developed 10 years ago when I was there. Very complicated, not very scalable solution,…

Source: Seekingalph.com

Brocade Communications Systems’ CEO Presents at Morgan Stanley Technology, Media & Telecom Conference (Transcript), February 25, 2013

Lloyd Carney was COO of Juniper in the 2002-2003 timeframe. At that time, Juniper was not even in the Ethernet Switch business (Juniper formally entered this market in 2008), let alone the more elaborate Q-Fabric data center switch that was generally released to the market in the second half of 2011.  Juniper publicly disclosed the R&D efforts around Q-Fabric in 2009, when the product was code named Project Stratus.  I find it hard to believe that Lloyd new anything about Q-Fabric when he was at Juniper, as the product concept most likely did not even exist in 2002-2003 and I also doubt the ASICs used in Q-Fabric were being conceived in 2002-2003.

Now while this all might be obvious given how long ago Lloyd was at Juniper, the question is why did he make such comments?  I do not know and I hope next time he speaks in the public domain, someone asks for a clarification. But until then, these comments raise a yellow flag to me.  In the meantime, I wish Lloyd all the best in his new role as CEO of Brocade.

Disclosure: I own shares of Yahoo. NT Advisors LLC may currently or in the future solicit any company mentioned in this blog post for consulting services.

 

What To Do With ALU?

In prior blog posts over the past few months I have been positive on technology stocks for 2013 given low relative valuations to the overall market and my view that IT and telecom capital spending will recover in 2013.  In particular, I have liked Alcatel-Lucent and Ericsson as a play on telecom capital spending and increased concern over Huawei as a security threat in the US (and some other markets), and recently Hewlett Packard given extreme negative sentiment, favorable cash flow and a low valuation, which was amplified by the Dell LBO valuation metrics.

While I remain positive on technology to outperform this year, Alcatel-Lucent has become a bit more challenging of a stock in my view.  I think the stock could still work over the course of the remainder of 2013, the next 2-3 months could be volatile and the stock could decline until after 1Q13 results are reported.  I base this on the new dynamics that have become public since the company reported 4Q12 results on February 7th, namely:

–       A new CEO was announced and he will not take over until April 1st, thus, potentially distracting the company during this interim period in 1Q13 as well as the new CEO potentially resetting expectations lower given new CEOs often seek to “lower the bar” when they take over a struggling company

–       Press reports about a potential combination with competitor Nokia Siemens Networks (NSN), which in theory could be positive but in reality may be very difficult to implement and execute

–       Press reports that the French government may take a stake in ALU to help secure the future of the company and its patent portfolio, which I think would not be in the best interest of shareholders

Positive on New Executive Announcements

I think the new CEO selection of Michel Combes seems like a good one given his background in the telecommunications industry at Vodafone and France Telecom and more importantly his reputation as a cost cutter, which is what ALU needs the most right now.  I think it is also positive that a new CEO was selected quickly, rather than long drawn out process.  I believe he will be well received by investors when he takes over the company on April 1st.  In addition, I strongly favor the selection of Jean Monty for the new role of Vice Chairman of the Board of Directors. When I was a Wall Street analyst, I found Jean Monty as an excellent CEO as he led the turnaround of Nortel in the 1990s after Nortel had underinvested in R&D and was suffering market share loss and degrading customer relationships.

While I am positive on the two new executive announcements, this first quarter could be a very challenging one for ALU.  The new CEO does not take over until April 1st.  The company could lack focus on trying to deliver the best financial results as possible given uncertainty on what the new CEO will do when he takes over on April 1st.  In addition, the first quarter of every year tends to be the most challenging for ALU and in the industry as a whole.  Thus, there could be some pressure on ALU shares until 1Q13 results are behind the company in my view given these transitory issues.

 Merger With NSN Good Theory, But Probably Difficult in Reality

The press has reported that ALU may be seeking a merger, investment or some other partnership with European competitor NSN. In theory, a merger with NSN might look attractive given both ALU and NSN are competing against much larger wireless infrastructure suppliers Ericsson and Huawei.  Combining forces would reduce competitive pricing pressure and provide more scale to compete against these two larger companies.  In reality, however, merger of equals in the telecom infrastructure usually results in 2+2=3, not 4 or 5.  The reason is that rationalizing duplicative product lines (wireless infrastructure in this case) is not easy, as customers do not typically accept products to be discontinued due to a merger. Thus, duplicative products and associated costs linger much longer than anticipated.  The other main issue in merger of equals is the cultural clashes of the two companies and political infighting that take place post the merger.  In fact, both NSN and ALU experienced these issues when each entity was formed in prior mergers (i.e. Alcatel merging with Lucent and Nokia Networks merging with Siemens infrastructure).

In addition to the challenge of achieving synergies being difficult in a merger between ALU and NSN, the appetite of NSN to go through such a restructuring effort after it is far along on its own restructuring plan would seem low to me.  NSN is well along in its restructuring into a primarily wireless infrastructure company after selling most of its other businesses and downsizing the company’s workforce by close to 25% (e.g. Access business sold to Adtran, Optical business sold to Marlin Equity Partners, Microwave Transport to DragonWave and Business Support Systems to Redknee etc.).  These restructuring efforts have paid off for NSN as it has reported solid financial results in 2012.  Merging with ALU would require a long merger process followed by another couple of years of new restructuring.

Another problem in merging NSN and ALU is that NSN is not a public company and does not have its own stock.   It seems to me that NSN, if public, would have a higher valuation than ALU and be more of the potential acquirer or investor into ALU than ALU being the acquirer or investor into NSN.  NSN is much further along than ALU in its restructuring, and as a result is much more profitable than ALU with full year 2012 operating margin of 5.6% and 4Q12 operating margin of 14.4% vs. ALU full year operating margin of (1.8%) for 2012 and 2.9% for 4Q12.  In addition, NSN has been generating positive cash flow for the past several quarters while ALU burned cash in 2012.  The better profitability, cash flow generation and further restructuring progress at NSN, would likely result in a higher valuation for NSN than the current ALU valuation.  ALU currently trades at about 0.3x EV/Sales. Ericsson, the other global, large, profitable and publicly traded telecom equipment supplier, currently trades at about 1x EV/Sales. My sense is NSN would trade closer to the valuation of Ericsson rather than ALU (maybe 0.6x-0.7x EV/Sales as an estimate).

Given NSN would have the higher valuation than ALU, but does not have a public stock currency, either NSN would first have to be spun out as a stand alone company to obtain a stock currency or NSN parent companies Nokia and/or Siemens would have to put up the cash to acquire ALU.  A spinout is certainly a possibility, but that will take months to implement and it would be highly unusual for such a spinout to do a large acquisition right after the spinout.  I also think neither Nokia nor Siemens has the appetite for using their cash to acquire ALU.  In particular, I think Siemens no longer views telecom infrastructure as strategic and would be reluctant to provide any additional cash infusion to NSN so it could acquire ALU.  Siemens is more likely looking at monetizing its potential stake in NSN (e.g. about €4-€5 billion) rather than investing more into the JV to acquire ALU.  Nokia may want to maintain an ownership in NSN even post an spinout given there are some advantages in selling both mobile devices and infrastructure to telecom operators. Huawei is using this tactic more often, and I believe Nokia views NSN as a way of countering this Huawei sales approach.  There may be some other intricate financial means for NSN to acquire ALU than the two I mentioned above, but regardless of the method, it would be a challenging integration in my view.

French Government Involvement Not Likely In Shareholders’ Interest

Press reports also suggest the French government may seek to invest directly in ALU via the government’s Strategic Investment Fund.  This fund was used in the past to invest in other French based companies (e.g. Gemalto and Nexans SA) that the government viewed as critical to French competitiveness. I am not positive on a French government investment in ALU.  I think a key motivation of the French government to invest in ALU would be for job preservation in France (ALU employees about 9,000 in France), which would oppose the whole idea around cost reduction for ALU and not be in the best interests of shareholders.  For shareholders, I think it would better to see ALU go through a restructuring program much like NSN did over the past two years, rather than take an investment from the French government to preserve French and other European jobs.   As I mentioned in prior blog posts, ALU cannot remain in all aspects of telecom infrastructure, but should follow the path of NSN and focus where the company has scale and competitive advantage. Namely, I think ALU should focus on Access, IP Routing and Optical.

Disclosure: I currently own shares of Alcatel-Lucent, Ericsson and HP although I may look to sell my ALU position in the very near term given points I mentioned in this blog.  NT Advisors LLC may currently or in the future solicit any company mentioned in this blog post for consulting services.

Does The Dell LBO Tell Us Anything About HP?

HP has been a horrendous stock in the past two years.  In my view this was due to weak fundamentals in the PC market, poor management decisions on acquisitions and a weak board of directors.  However, HP is still a company with annual revenues off about $120 billion making it one of the largest companies in the market.  HP is not going to disappear, and with some better management decisions and perhaps a better IT spending environment, it could be an interesting turnaround story.  It could, however, also be a value trap that continues to have its stock price decline.  I think HP is more likely to be a good stock performer than a value trap in the next year.  I base this on very negative sentiment and compelling valuation that is only supported by the recently announced LBO of Dell.

Below is a table showing the relative makeup of both Dell and HP.  Since each company segments it’s revenues  differently than the other, I made some assumptions in formulating this competitive table.  A more precise comparative analysis could be performed dissecting SEC filings.
 
                                                         HP  Dell
 Printing or Peripherals                   20%  16%
 PCs/Devices                                  29%  52%
 Services                                          28%  14%
 Servers Storage and Networking  17%  17%
Other                                                 6%  0%
As the table shows, Dell and HP have similar revenue compositions.  In addition, both companies have similar gross margins in the 20s and recent revenue trends of flat to declining revenues year over year.   In a sense, Dell is a smaller version of HP, without the management and board issues. The smaller size and market capitalization of Dell made an LBO possible, while an HP LBO is very unlikely.  Even though HP is not a LBO candidate like Dell, I think looking at the Dell valuation metrics at the LBO takeover price can provide insight into whether HP offers any value to investors.
 
The table below shows recent valuation metrics for HP and Dell.  As the the table shows, HP is a cheaper stock on EV/EBITDA and Price/Book while Dell is a bit cheaper on EV/Sales.  Since value investors tend to be more focused on cash flow metrics like EV/EVITDA and book value of the company, HP trades at a cheaper valuation than Dell.  While HP shareholders will not benefit from a potential LBO, any additional missteps from the current management team could lead to increased activism among shareholders forcing a change of strategy, management team, company break up or some other favorable catalyst for the stock.  If the current management team executes better, the low valuation should provide a base from which the stock can appreciate.  
 
                      HPQ  DELL
 Price/Book  1.47  2.34
 EV/EBITDA  3.40  4.86
 EV/Sales      0.47  0.37
 
Another important point I would like to make is the trend in free cash flow at HP.  HP has tended to deliver consistent free cash flow (defined as cash flow from operations less capital spending) on the order of $2 billion a quarter or about $8 billion a year.  I believe recent negative reports from tech companies exposed to HP as either an OEM, EMS or reseller (e.g. Mellanox) is reflective of HP trying to manage its cash flow to continue to show solid performance on this important financial metric.
 
Finally, the sentiment on HP is extremely negative on the street. Currently, there are only the equivalent of 2 buy ratings vs. 23 neutral ratings and 9 sell ratings.  The sell side clearly continues to view HP as a value trap given this composition of stock ratings.  Also, most IT executives I speak to view HP as a weak company with little prospects for any turnaround. This may end up being correct, but I think in this current age of increased shareholder activism, the recent Dell LBO and continued focus by HP on cash flow generation, HP is more of a Buy than a Sell.  Longer term, I am not yet convinced that HP will be a great stock or company, but in the short to intermediate term, I think the stock looks somewhat attractive.
 
Disclosure: I currently own shares of HP. I may currently or in the future solicit any company mentioned in this report for consulting services for NT Advisors LLC. 

 

Telecom Equipment Dynamics Remain Favorable

As I have posted in prior blog posts over the past few months, I have been generally positive on Alcatel-Lucent and Ericsson given my view these two stocks were under valued and that a cyclical bullish trade in these two stocks was likely given a better telecom capital spending environment would materialize in 2013.  This past week, three data points came to surface that continue to make me comfortable with this thesis.

  1. Telecom Italia announced it was cutting its dividend by about half, to help fund its capital spending plan for 2013-2015 to support needed network investments in both LTE and fiber based broadband networks.  Capex in each year in the 2013-2015 period would likely remain consistent with the 2012 capex level of about 3 billion.  While cutting the dividend to help fund capex is not ideal, the fact that a large European telecom operator is committing to a reasonably healthy capital spending outlook for the next three years is encouraging, especially for a Southern European telecom operator given the weak economic condition in that region.
  2. Telecom operator KPN of the Netherlands reported 2012 capex of 2.2 billion, at the high end of its guidance of 2.0-2.2 billion.  KPN is another European telecom operator that had cut its dividend in 2012, yet actually spent at the high end of its capital spending guidance.  More importantly, KPN announced that for 2013-2015 annual capex would be in the range of about 2.2-2.3 billion, suggesting capex in each of the next three years would be at the 2012 level or slightly higher. Once again, the drivers for capital spending would be the build out of its 4G wireless network and a more robust broadband wireline network.
  3. Sprint reported 4Q 2012 results Wall Street analysts significantly raised their 2013 and 2014 capex estimates from about $5.5-$6.5 billion per year to about $7.5-$8 billion per year.    This level of capex compares to $5.4 billion in 2012.  Clearly Sprint is planning to be aggressive with its capital spending given the planned investment by Softbank and Softbank’s desire to be major force in the US wireless market.

Europe Has Been Underinvesting; New Competitive Dynamics in the US

What I infer from these data points as well as the analysis of historical capital spending trends is that most telecom operators in Europe have been under-spending given the weak macro-economic conditions in the region as well as pressure to preserve current dividend payouts.  It seems to me that the mindset of European telecom operators might be changing from “preservation” to “growth” which in some cases is supporting dividend cuts in favor of capital spending in growth initiatives like 4G and wireline broadband initiatives.  In addition, the US market could be poised for a new competitive dynamic where the virtual duopoly of AT&T and Verizon will be challenged by a newly funded and aggressive Sprint and the re-emergence of T-Mobile as another wireless operator that invests for growth.  T-Mobile may not have long term aspirations like Sprint in the US and eventually may seek to sell itself to Sprint or another entity. But in the interim period of the next two years, T-Mobile will likely be more of in the investment mode in its network rather than a harvest/sell mode.

While I Remain Favorable, Telecom Equipment Stocks are Very Risky

The telecom equipment market is still a very competitive industry with aggressive pricing pressure.  A more favorable capital spending environment is certainly a positive, but does not ensure stocks in the sector will perform well.  While this is still a risk, I continue to think the bullish cyclical trade has not run its course and remain positive on both Alcatel-Lucent and Ericsson.  Alcatel-Lucent has additional risks of turning around negative cash flow performance since the merger of the two former companies and a sub-scale business.  Thus, it is a much riskier investment than Ericsson.

 Plot Thickens at ALU With A New CEO Search and Press Reports on NSN

In the case of Alcatel-Lucent, the company also announced it is looking for a new CEO.  The outcome of this CEO search will certainly be an important factor impacting the stock performance of ALU in the future.  The WSJ sites NCR current Chairman and CEO Bill Nuti as one potential candidate.  Bill has an accomplished career and I think would be a good choice for ALU.  On the other hand, the job of turning around ALU will be challenging for any new CEO as the company has a high cost structure, especially in Europe, and needs to focus its R&D in fewer areas of the telecom equipment market.  The high cost structure in Europe is a major over-hang, as typical severance packages in France and other parts of Europe require up to three years of salary when employees are downsized.   Large severance payments in Europe will make it difficult for ALU to successfully complete its restructuring in my view.  Thus, any new CEO, regardless of talent and vision, will have to somehow overcome this restructuring over-hang.

Another interesting French corporate development to watch that may or may not have implications for ALU is how the French government deals with similar cost and market demand issues at French auto manufacturer Peugeot.  Press articles discuss that the French government might get involved in the restructuring/turnaround of Peugeot to preserve the company and jobs in France.  Peugeot, however, employs significantly more people in France (about 100,000) than ALU (about 10,000).  In addition, there is precedent in the auto industry for governments to help struggling companies (e.g. the US bailout of General Motors), but we have not seen such support in the telecom equipment market (e.g. the Canadian government did not get involved when Nortel fell to bankruptcy).

Increasing the intrigue on the CEO selection and ongoing restructuring at ALU is another recent press report from Bloomberg indicating that Siemens would like to exit its 50% ownership of the Nokia Siemens Networks (NSN) joint venture with Nokia (Nokia owns the remaining 50% of this joint venture).  NSN has shown three good quarters in a row and is well down the road in its own restructuring plan.  Thus, it is not a surprise that Siemens would want out of the JV as Siemens has been exiting its telecommunications businesses over the past several years and NSN is now more of a stable entity.  Nokia likely wants to stay in the wireless infrastructure business as smartphone competitor Samsung is attempting to win business by bundling smartphones and wireless infrastructure equipment in several of Nokia’s markets.  According to the Bloomberg article, Nokia is considering buying Siemens’ stake directly or in a partnership with ALU.   If in-fact ALU would end up being a part owner of NSN, this would likely be a positive for both ALU and NSN as they would be partners rather than competitors in the wireless infrastructure and services markets.   Given both are distant players behind Huawei and Ericsson in the wireless infrastructure market; a partnership between the two would help both companies. This of course assumes, that ALU is able to fund a purchase of a partial ownership in NSN and the ability for both ALU and NSN to implement further restructuring in their respective wireless equipment and services businesses that would likely result from a partnership between NSN and ALU.  The other interesting angle in a potential partnership between ALU and NSN would be whether NSN would begin favoring ALU for IP routing equipment instead of Juniper Networks, its long time partner for IP routing.  That could be another positive for ALU to come out of such a partnership, besides better competitive dynamics in the wireless infrastructure and services markets.

Disclosure: I own shares of Alcatel-Lucent and Ericsson mentioned in this blog post.  I currently and in the future may solicit any company mentioned in this blog for consulting or advisory board services for NT Advisors LLC.

 

 

Oracle and Cisco On A Collision Course

Today Oracle announced it was acquiring session border controller equipment supplier Acme Packet for about $1.7 billion.   Acme Packet has roughly 50% market share of the $500 million session border controller market.  What I find interesting in this strategic move by Oracle is that they are entering a market (albeit a relatively small market) that is served by traditional communications equipment suppliers like Cisco, Alcatel-Lucent and Ericsson.  One has to ask, why is Oracle entering such a market?  My view on this is Oracle sees that the combination of high speed public roaming wireless technologies like LTE, the maturation of IP Multi-Media System (IMS) for IP service manageability (which SBC is a part of), more sophisticated mobile devices (e.g. tablets and smartphones) and cloud hosting as allowing for the first time communications service providers (e.g. Verizon and AT&T) to truly offer a full suite of managed fixed and mobile services to the enterprise customers.    Oracle wants to be a solution provider to service providers and large enterprises in the areas of business/services operations, IMS core manageability and application creation elements.  Oracle already does a significant amount of business with service providers in business/services operations and is likely looking to expand its offering in IMS core and application creation.  Acme fits into the IMS core.  I would not be surprised to see Oracle acquire Layer 4-7 application companies within the Software Defined Networking (SDN) architecture as well to enhance their offerings in application creation.  These companies, however, may not necessarily be public companies, but rather private start-ups developing pure software applications rather than special purpose network appliances.

What is also clear to me in this move by Oracle is how Cisco and Oracle will become more competitive over time. This is not surprising, as both companies are somewhat mature and seeking new growth vehicles.  What probably also accelerates this increasing competition between the two companies is Cisco’s recent strategy shift to being more of a software company.  Acme was a main competitor to Cisco, albeit in a small market of only about $500 million.  Even so, this deal likely portends of more competitive clashes between the two companies in the future.  So while the street has been focused on the increasing competitive dynamics between EMC and Cisco after VMware acquired Nicira back in July of 2012, now we can add another competitive battle with Cisco in the form of Oracle.

Large cap technology companies like IBM, Oracle, Cisco, EMC and HP all are mature when one looks at single digit organic revenue growth or even less for IBM and HP.  We are likely to see more of these technology titans continue to compete with each other as we have already seen in the past several years.   Even though this is obvious, predicting the actual M&A decisions by each company has not always been so obvious.  While VMware acquiring Nicira was not too shocking, I don’t think many were predicting Oracle would buy Acme Packet.  More such surprises are likely in 2013 and beyond to the point one has to question how the networking equipment industry landscape will look like in a few years.

Disclosure:  I currently own shares of Cisco and Ericsson mentioned in this blog post.  NT Advisors LLC may currently or in the future solicit any company mentioned in this blog post for consulting/advisory services.