Activist Investing In The Technology Sector

Recent earnings reports from technology powerhouses of the past couple of decades exemplify that these prior titans are all now challenged by lack of revenue growth, margin compression and/or disruptions from new technologies. In particular, Cisco, Dell, IBM, Intel, HP, Microsoft and Oracle all either suffered from weak revenue and/or margin results in their most recent respective earnings results.  Perhaps the confluence of weak results was coincident with the lack of global GDP growth and indicative that these large companies are all suffering from the “law of large numbers” as they have all become mature companies with exposure to legacy businesses (e.g. personal computers, Ethernet switching and structured relational databases etc.) that they all helped define and conquer in the prior three decades?  If true, however, the boards of these companies have to be cognizant of increasing shareholder activism in the technology industry and that more shareholder friendly actions in the form of increased capital returns to shareholders, potential company breakups and leadership changes will need to be considered in addition to traditional technology management actions such as using M&A to spur growth.   The fall from grace of HP prior to Meg Whitman being named CEO was unfortunately an example of a poor use of company cash for M&A, lack of internal investment for innovation and leadership selection choices and raises the question on whether an earlier action by an activist would have helped HP and its board make better decisions.

Recent successes of shareholder activism, which were not originally supported by company boards in large and “legacy” technology companies, have often led to favorable shareholder returns.  Such positive stock returns, will likely encourage further activism in my view from not only the traditional activists but from traditional “long only” investment funds.  The positive returns for shareholders in other “legacy” technology companies Motorola, Yahoo and Dell where activists became involved and ultimately led to a company breakup for Motorola, new leadership for Yahoo and a higher acquisition price for Dell in its planned LBO all resulted in favorable returns for shareholders.  Carl Icahn’s recent tweets regarding his recent investment in Apple, the largest technology company as measured by market capitalization, and discussions with Apple CEO Tim Cook regarding increasing capital returns for shareholders is further evidence of activism taking on the cash rich nature and relatively low valuation of large technology companies.

The recent case of Microsoft is also telling in regard to increased activism playing a role in leadership selection and potentially strategy change.  The fact that Microsoft is currently the third largest technology company in the world based on market capitalization, is not deterring activism from playing a role at this critical point in the company’s history.  In August of 2013, Microsoft offered a board seat to activist investor fund ValueAct Capital Management that had been pressing for a change of the CEO of company.  I also recall a few occasions during my career as a technology sell side analyst visiting institutional investor accounts around the same time as Steve Ballmer, CEO of Microsoft.  I found it interesting that investors would tell me how they made it a point to tell Mr. Ballmer that Microsoft needed to consider selling or exiting certain businesses, breaking up the company or other actions to enhance shareholder returns, but that such requests were falling on deaf ears.  When it was announced that Steve Ballmer would retire from Microsoft on August 23rd, Microsoft’s market capitalization rose by ~$20 billion.  After the announcement on September 2nd that Microsoft would acquire Nokia’s Device and Services business, thus doubling down on its current strategy even as a new CEO was not yet identified, Microsoft shares gave up about $13 billion in market capitalization.

Investors not only saw the Nokia acquisition as doubling down on the prior strategy, but at the time also the increased likelihood that Stephen Elop, current Nokia CEO and former executive at Microsoft, would be the next CEO of Microsoft and potentially maintain the status quo of Steve Ballmer’s tenure.  The opportunity to be heard and play a role in the future of Microsoft, however, was not going to be lost as shareholder activism led to several of Microsoft’s largest shareholders are putting pressure on the board of Microsoft to consider a CEO with “turn around” experience rather than someone who is going to just maintain the status quo.  It will certainly be interesting to see how the CEO selection of Microsoft develops and how activism will likely play a role in the CEP selection as well as the potential ongoing strategy post the selection.  The recent rally in Microsoft stock to a new 10 year high is a likely a sign that investors “smell” a positive leadership change, that will unlock value at the company.

Note: The basis for this article was originally published in the inaugural issue of the “Cornerstone Journal of Sustainable Finance and Banking” published in October 2013.

I also recently was interviewed on Bloomberg TV on the topic of Activism in The Technology Sector.  The interviewed can be viewed here

SDN: Open, Fragmented Chaos

I wanted to follow up on a prior blog post after attending a recent SDN conference where I also moderated an investment panel.  In summary, I walked away from this conference and reading other recent SDN news thinking that 2013 will be a year of increased entropy for the SDN market.  VCs will continue to fund new start-ups, incumbent large IT companies will announce SDN plans/roadmaps, users will demand open standards to avoid vendor lock-in and the press release and marketing onslaught will be intense.  From an investment perspective, I still think it is too early to make any definitive conclusions given all this disorder and timing of SDN revenues being significant still being a couple of years away, but I believe that existing merchant silicon suppliers like Broadcom can only benefit from the deployment SDN with little threats from start-ups, while Layer 4-7 based appliance companies like F5 are most at risk given the ultimate SDN architecture and significant VC start-up funding in this area. 

Users Want Open Standards: Not surprising, both enterprise and service provider end users are weary of being locked-in to single vendor or vendor coalitions. After all, one of the main goals of SDN is to unlock monolithic data center hardware and appliances to allow for more innovative and faster feature development.  What I think will be challenging here is any standards efforts typically involves multiple constituents with different agendas.  This tends to slow down the standards process and results in compromises in the ultimate standards that limit functionality and flexibility.  A very relevant example in the recent past was the standardization process for IP Multi-media Subsystem (IMS) in the telecommunications industry.   When I asked a senior technical executive from the telecom industry at the SDN conference on whether there were any lessons learned or best practices from the IMS standardization process that could be applied to SDN, the answer was not encouraging. Specifically, the executive mentioned how the standards process around IMS was tedious, took longer than expected, and resulted in compromises that ultimately left the standard somewhat inflexible for some future unforeseen requirements (e.g. certain aspects of machine to machine communications over 3G/4G wireless networks).   Although not yet formally announced, the new open-source Daylight controller consortium from traditional networking and IT vendors Cisco, Citrix, HP, IBM and NEC will be interesting to watch.  Is this is a true open-source initiative, or a coalition effort from those that benefit from the current processes in data center design, implementation and hardware sales that just want to keep the status quo as we transition to SDN over the next few years.

Fragmentation and Chaos: To me, the SDN market right now is both fragmented in terms of company functionality and chaotic in terms of vendor positioning and marketing.  I say fragmented as most start-ups (and public companies for that matter) I see are offering one or a few pieces of the overall SDN solution, but not one is all that encompassing. That make sense given how broad SDN is both in terms of architecture and functionality.  It is likely we will see continued funding of start-ups to fill in functions within the SDN functional grid as well as acquisitions as existing public companies and mature SDN start-ups seek to fill out their SDN offerings.  The F5 acquisition of LineRate was a recent example of this as an existing appliance based Application Delivery Controller company F5, acquired an SDN start-up focused on Application Delivery Control.  Thus, the fragmentation of the SDN market is likely to remain and supportive of continued VC funding, which will continue to fuel consolidation as mature start-ups, traditional networking, hardware and software companies seek to fill in the gaps of their SDN solution.  I continue to believe such a cycle and the ultimate timing of significant SDN revenues being 3 years away will make it highly unlikely any true SDN start-up goes public in the next two years.

I also characterize the SDN market as chaotic right now given the marketing onslaught of large technology companies in 2013.  In the past several days alone, we have seen initial indications of the open-source Daylight controller (e.g. expected to be supported by Cisco, Citrix, HP, IBM and NEC), SDN announcements from traditional vendors Ericsson and Huawei and ONUG releasing its top five recommendations to enable Open Networking.   While 2012 was the year start-ups garnered virtually all the attention in the SDN market, 2013 seems to be the year that technology incumbents are scrambling for mind share through coalitions, product launches/roadmaps and acquisitions.  On top of these developments, venture capitalists on the panel I moderated at the SDN conference indicated they expect further investments in 2013 for new SDN start-ups.   Seems like the SDN crescendo will only intensify throughout the year.

Investment Thoughts:  My investment thesis around SDN continues to evolve as I continue to digest new information.  I provide some takeaways from the investment panel I moderated at the SDN conference below, which are of-course subject to change in the future as new information becomes available.   

  1. Little Competition for Merchant Silicon Companies: Everyone agrees that there will be strong demand for merchant silicon for new hardware platforms as the SDN market develops.  On the other hand, it appears VCs do not want to fund merchant silicon start-ups given the high R&D and other costs associated with semiconductor companies vs. software companies.  Thus, my conclusion is that Broadcom and maybe Marvel (if they can get some traction with their merchant silicon products) could be companies to benefit from the growth of SDN, although it will take a few years for SDN to truly drive merchant silicon sales. Intel would be another beneficiary, but merchant silicon would likely be too small of a business for such a large semiconductor company.
  2. Layer 4-7 Companies More At Risk Than Cisco: While all incumbent data center equipment suppliers are potentially at risk from the future of SDN, I think special purpose appliance based Layer 4-7 companies like F5 are more vulnerable than Cisco.   I say this because the ultimate SDN architecture will still require physical switching fabrics in the data center. Perhaps these fabrics will be merchant silicon based and Cisco will suffer share loss or margin pressure, but perhaps not.  On the other hand, the stand alone Layer 4-7 appliance is not present in the future SDN based data center, but rather replaced by a pure software solution in the application layer.  While its possible companies like F5 can pivot and transition their business models to be the suppliers of such software, the VC community seems intent on funding talented start-ups to attack this technology discontinuity while at the same time they are not funding merchant silicon companies at all and seem to be rarely funding data center fabric companies. 

Disclosure: I currently own shares of Cisco, HP, Marvel and Ericsson mentioned in this report. I may currently or in the future solicit any company mentioned in this report for consulting 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.

I Continue To Be Positive On Technology for 2013

Following up on my blog post in the beginning of the year, I continue to expect the technology sector to outperform the overall market (S&P 500) in 2013.  This opinion is based on three years of underperformance of the technology sector given a depressed level of telecom and enterprise capital spending which has compressed valuations for technology stocks vs. other sectors like consumer discretionary which as been a strong relative performer over that three year period.  I continue to believe we will have some recovery on capital spending in both telecom and enterprise networks in 2013, which together with lower relative valuations, should allow the technology sector to outperform in 2013.

So far in 2013, the technology sector is up around 4.5% vs. the 2.5% return of the S&P 500.  While it is still very early in the year, this initial outperformance and strong stock performance from IBM and Google (two large components in the technology sector index) today after their reporting their earnings (both are up about 5%-6% so far this morning) are very good signs.   The depressed level of technology stocks has also been supported by recent discussions in the press of Dell being a potential LBO candidate, and HP potentially being broken up to create shareholder value if the company does not show signs of a turnaround in 2013.

The biggest potential risk to technology outperforming in 2013 in my view is the performance of Apple as it makes up to 20% of technology index given its large market cap.  I am not particularly positive on Apple as it is losing momentum (see my prior blog post on Apple for more details) and does not play into the theme of recovering capital spending for technology stocks.  However, the stock has declined close to 30% off its high and is discounting many of the negative fundamentals I discussed in my earlier blog on the stock.

Disclosure:  I am currently not long or short any stock mentioned in this blog post (i.e. Apple, IBM, Google, Dell or HP).  I also do not plan on taking a position on any of these stocks in the next couple of days.  I am long the technology ETF ticker VGT.

Addendum – With the selloff in tech shares today 1/24/13, I am considering purchasing shares in technology stocks mentioned in this post.

Technology Sector Likely to Outperform S&P 500 in 2013

While the Information Technology sector had a reasonably good year in 2012 with a 14.0% return, the sector still underperformed the S&P 500, which returned 16.0%. In fact, the technology sector has underperformed the S&P 500 for three consecutive years.  While 2013 could prove to be another volatile year for the stock market given ongoing uncertainty on the global economy and the ultimate outcome regarding the U.S. fiscal cliff, I believe the three-year trend of underperformance of the technology sector will reverse, and the technology sector will likely outperform the S&P 500 in 2013.

In looking at the following table, one can see how in the past three years the consumer discretionary sector has been a consistent outperformer as compared to the S&P 500 while the technology sector has been an underperformer.  In fact, the consumer discretionary sector has been the best cumulative performer in the past three years among the ten market industry sectors.  One question is why has consumer discretionary outperformed the overall market while technology has underperformed for three straight years after the 2009 recession when normally both consumer discretionary and corporate capital spending recover nicely post a recession?

2012 2011 2010
Consumer Discretionary 24.6% 3.7% 30.6%
Information Technology 14.0% 0.5% 12.7%
S&P 500 16.0% 2.1% 15.1%

One could argue the outperformance of the consumer discretionary sector made some intuitive sense as the U.S. consumer started to gradually become more confident in 2010 post the 2008/2009 Great Recession and began to gradually spend more on discretionary items while at the same time taking advantage of record low interest rates to repair their personal balance sheets post the deb crisis.  On the other hand, corporate and telecom services capital spending growth have been lackluster in the past three years.   The ongoing economic slowdown and uncertainty in Europe combined with anxiety over U.S. economic/tax policy has led to cautious capital spending.  Thus, consumer discretionary spending has rebounded more strongly in the past three years and corporate/telecom capital spending.

While it is anyone’s guess how spending trends will fare in 2013, my view is corporate/telecom capital spending has underperformed for too many years relative to consumer discretionary spending and will show more robust growth in 2013.  We already have some encouraging signs in this regard by strong 2013 capital spending plans by major global telecom operators like AT&T, Deutsche Telekom and Sprint as examples.  I think this relative recovery in corporate/telecom spending will allow the technology sector to outperform in 2013.

The strong outperformance of consumer discretionary stocks relative to technology stocks in the past three years has also been evident when one looks at valuation metrics between the two sectors.   While valuation metrics like price/book and price/sales for the consumer discretionary sector have expanded nicely in the past three years, the same valuation metrics have actually contracted for the technology sector.  Thus, one could argue that the outperformance of the consumer discretionary sector was not only driven by better relative spending by consumers over corporates/telecoms, but also expansion of valuation metrics.  I think 2013 will be a catch up year for technology stocks in terms of valuation metrics, which should also help the technology sector outperform the S&P 500.

The table below shows the top eight stock holdings of the Vanguard Consumer Discretionary ETF (ticker VCR) and Information Technology ETF (ticker VGT).  The two tables below the list of stocks show how the valuation metrics for these 16 stocks have changed since the beginning of 2010 through the end of 2012 (i.e. over the three year period of underperformance of the information technology sector).

Consumer Discretionary (Ticker: VCR)

Information Technology (Ticker: VGT)

Comcast (CMCSA) Apple (AAPL)
Home Depot (HD) International Business Machines (IBM)
Amazon.com (AMZN) Microsoft (MSFT)
McDonalds (MCD) Google (GOOG)
Walt Disney (DIS) Oracle (ORCL)
News Corp. (NWSA) Qualcomm (QCOM)
Time Warner (TWX) Cisco Systems (CSCO)
Lowes Cos. (LOW) Intel (INTC)

 

Consumer Discretionary Valuation Metrics 12/31/09 vs. 12/31/12

Price/Book

12/31/2009

Price/Book

12/31/2012

Price/Sales

12/31/2009

Price/Sales

12/31/2012

Comcast 1.12 2.02 1.34 1.62
Home Depot 2.32 5.26 0.68 1.29
Amazon.com 11.08 15.02 2.38 1.98
McDonalds 4.80 6.41 2.96 3.24
Walt Disney 1.59 2.12 1.66 2.11
News Corp. 1.44 2.26 1.16 1.78
Time Warner 1.01 1.51 1.34 1.58
Lowes Cos. 1.49 2.85  0.64 0.79
AVG Increase

63%

28%

Information Technology Valuation Metrics 12/31/09 vs. 12/31/12

Price/Book

12/31/2009

Price/Book

12/31/2012

Price/Sales

12/31/2009

Price/Sales

12/31/2012

Apple 5.33 4.22 4.09 3.19
IBM 7.56 10.10 1.80 2.09
Microsoft 6.11 3.25 4.61 3.10
Google 5.46 3.4 8.32 4.87
Oracle 4.10 3.70 4.90 4.31
Qualcomm 3.62 3.14 7.33 5.51
Cisco 3.2 1.98 3.70 2.23
Intel 2.70 2.10 3.21 1.92
AVG Increase

-19%

-22%

In summary, technology has lagged the S&P 500 for the past three years while consumer discretionary has dramatically outperformed. In doing so, consumer discretionary valuation metrics have expanded dramatically, while technology valuations have contracted.  With the potential for a corporate/telecom capex recovery in 2013 and relatively low valuations, the technology sector is poised in my view to finally outperform the S&P 500 in 2013.

Cisco Wants To Be #1 – Déjà Vu All Over Again

Cisco held its annual financial conference on December 7th and as expected, the company outlined its new plan to become more of a software and services company. I wrote about this twist on Cisco’s strategy on my blog “Cisco Pulling an IBM?” on November 19th.   While Cisco spent a good part of its analyst day talking about how it is best positioned to implement this new strategy, CEO John Chambers also put out the goal for Cisco to be the number one IT company in the world in the future.  What I found interesting about this statement is that Cisco first put this target out in the 2006-2007 timeframe in a prior financial analyst meeting.  At that time, Cisco had its “secret” spin-in Nuova developing the UCS blade server allowing Cisco to expand its addressable market within the IT industry from networking to also servers.  Cisco was also at that time initiating its entry into the consumer IT segment, which it later shutdown in 2011 post the failed 2009 acquisition of Flip maker Pure Digital.

Cisco backed off its aim to the be the number one IT company when the 2008/2009 recession led to a decline in Cisco revenues and earnings, and concern that HP was going to commoditize its traditional networking business hit the stock in 2010/2011.   Well now that the great recession is over and HP is viewed less likely to be a challenger to Cisco given the numerous problem the company is experiencing, John Chambers has re-launched the bold target to be number one.  In 2006/2007, Cisco had the expansion into servers and the data center market as its launch pad for being more than just a networking company.  Today, Cisco is using a more aggressive entry into software and services as the next frontiers for being number one.  Storage seems to remain an area of partnerships rather an acquisition for now, but that could change depending on what EMC decides to do in the future with regard to any broader efforts in the networking market.

In my view, Cisco is better positioned in the networking industry than it was a couple of years ago as primary large competitors HP, Huawei and Juniper are less of a threat.  HP has had many corporate issues and a failed overall strategy to date, Huawei’s success in entering the Enterprise market has shown little progress outside of China and Juniper is spread thin and faces niche competitors in addition to Cisco in areas such as security and switching.  The improved competitive standpoint in networking and a much stronger commitment to capital returns to shareholders via a higher dividend yield than the past has make Cisco stock a safer place to be these days than the past three years.

While Cisco stock may be safer today than in the past three years, I think its still a long shot for Cisco to fulfill the number one IT company goal given IBM is basically already the de-facto number one IT company today with a strong suite of software and services, trust by corporate CIOs and a very focused and consistent strategy.  I don’t see IBM bowing to Cisco’s new goal to be number one.  In addition, other large traditional IT companies like Oracle and EMC and new challengers to the traditional IT model like Amazon, Apple and Google are all aiming to capture a larger share of corporate IT spending.  So until proven otherwise, Cisco’s claim that it wants to be number one in IT sounds like déjà vu all over again to me.  Given John Chambers is likely to retire within the next 3-4 years, the ultimate outcome of this goal is not even likely to be known when he departs after a long and successful role as CEO since 1995.

 

Cisco Pulling an IBM? Reasonable Strategy But Starting Point Is Different

As noted on my Blog from October 24th “Tucci Says No to Networking; Chambers Says Yes to Software”, Cisco is becoming more serious in its pursuit to transform its business model to become less dependent on traditional networking hardware products (e.g. Ethernet Switches, Routers etc…) and more dependent on recurring revenues from higher margin software and services.  CEO John Chambers and the Cisco Board finally concluded that reinvigorating revenue growth to the glory days of Cisco’s past as a means of reversing Cisco’s declining price earnings multiple that has taken place over the prior 12 years was not going to work.  Paying a healthy dividend and improving earnings growth/visibility even during economic downturns was a better formula for shareholder returns and relative valuation metrics to other large mature technology companies.

While I agree with Cisco’s new strategy and give credit to Cisco for finally pursuing this course of action, Cisco is entering this transformation with very high gross and operating margins. Thus, while many hope Cisco can “pull and IBM” over the next several years in transforming its business to more software and services, IBM started its transformation from an easier starting point in terms of profitability margins.   This high starting ground for Cisco, reflective of still very high margins in its traditional networking hardware platforms that are subject to longer term margin pressure, will make Cisco’s transformation a lot more challenging than IBM’s in my view.  It is also likely to lead to more aggressive and larger acquisitions in the software industry in the next two years.  NDS and Meraki, the two largest software-like acquisitions in 2012 so far, are likely to be just the start of things to come at Cisco.

Cisco Hitting Recent 5%-7% Growth Target, But Helped by Acquisitions

Chambers no longer talks about the 30%-50% revenue growth goal that was the Cisco growth mantra up until the tech bubble crash in 2000 or the 12%-17% growth target that followed post the tech bubble recovery in 2004 but rather a more subdued 5%-7% growth that followed post the recovery from the 2008 financial bubble collapse.  Cisco has been living up to this new target with average revenue growth of 6% in the past eight quarters.  Even this more modest goal has not been a layup for Cisco, however, as organic revenue growth excluding acquisitions in the most recent quarter and guidance for the next quarter is below 5%.

With Revenue Growth Elusive, Pursue Earnings Visibility and Dividends

With strong organic revenue growth proving to be elusive for Cisco given increased competition from niche start-ups in various product categories (e.g. F5 in Layer 4-7, Palo Alto in Security, Arista in Switching etc…), price competition from broad large IT companies like Huawei and HP and the potential for a new business model disruption to its hardware centric business from the emerging Software Defined Networking architecture, Cisco altered course to pursue an “IBM like” model of high margin recurring revenues from software and services and an increasing dividend payout.  This increasing focus on software and services was very prevalent on Cisco’s earnings call last week as evident from this quote from John Chambers:

“…we are focusing very aggressively, even though it takes a couple of years to do it, much more software, much more recurring revenue…”   

I think John is being a bit optimistic that this business model transformation will only take a couple of years, but it is certainly clear that this is the new direction for Cisco.  This software, services and recurring revenue strategy is also very evident when one looks at the acquisitions Cisco has made so far in 2012.   In 2012, Cisco has announced 8 acquisitions with only one being in classic hardware (e.g. Lightwire for development of lower cost transceiver modules within Switching and Routing platforms), while all the other companies were primarily software companies.  In particular, the two largest deals of the year, NDS Group ($5B purchase price) and Meraki ($1.2B purchase price) were predominantly software-based businesses with gross margins above Cisco’s corporate gross margin in the 60% range.

Cisco Will Be Challenged To Achieve IBM’s EPS Growth Rate and Visibility

Besides concluding that strong organic revenue growth was unlikely given failed attempts in the past decade, Cisco likely looked at the success IBM has had over the past decade in reducing its earnings volatility during downturns in the global economy and how that has led to a superior stock performance and improved valuation vs. Cisco.  In particular, IBM has shown only about 3% revenue CAGR over the past decade, but its operating income has grown at about a 30% CAGR and EPS CAGR of about 23%.   Over the same period, Cisco has shown stronger revenue CAGR of about 11%, buts much weaker operating income CAGR of 8% and EPS CAGR of 13%.  More impressively, IBM never had a down year in EPS over the past decade, even during the “great recession” of 2009.  Cisco on the other hand, had two years where earnings fell with a 20% decline in fiscal 2009 and a 14% decline in fiscal 2011.

While Cisco’s revelation that a business model around strong revenue growth was not achievable and pursuing a more stable, higher margin, recurring revenue model with higher dividends was more favorable for its shareholders there is one major difference between when IBM started its transformation and where Cisco is today.  Namely, IBM’s gross margin and operating margin a decade ago were in the high 30s and between 8%-9% respectively.  By focusing on software and services via acquisitions and organic development, IBM was able to increase its GAAP gross and operating margin to about 47% and 19% respectively.  Cisco on other hand is starting its business transformation from a very high margin structure with GAAP gross and operating margin of about 60% and 22% respectively.   Cisco still derives well over 50% of revenues from networking hardware platforms and enjoys extremely high margins of over 60% on these platforms.  The ability to transform its business model to more software and services will only be achieved if Cisco can preserve profit margins on traditional networking platforms.  This is likely to be challenging in my view as traditional networking products will likely to continue to experience margin compression over time given the ongoing trends of Software Defined Networking, increased availability of networking merchant silicon making lower cost networking platforms more prevalent and continued pricing pressure from large IT players from China like Huawei.   With such a challenging goal, I believe Cisco will seek to achieve its transformation via a more aggressive acquisition pace in the software area and a networking hardware sales approach that seeks to maximize the leverage of its installed base to delay as much as possible the likely margin pressure in traditional networking products.