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

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.

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.

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.