Buy, Sell or Hold: IBM Has Found a Formula for Growth – Even During a Recession

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International Business Machines Corp. (NYSE: IBM) has “surprised” the market with flawless execution and strong profits.

A few months ago, I congratulated my nephew for getting an internship with IBM, while he studies business in Argentina.

“It is a superb global company, with a bullet-proof business model and a balance sheet that gives them a huge sustainable competitive advantage,” I said, advising him to use the opportunity to find his way to a permanent job with the company for after he graduates.

With its recent financial results, IBM made me look very prescient, and made my advice to my nephew look very shrewd, indeed. Despite the total meltdowns of the U.S. and global economies last October, IBM executed flawlessly and handily beat analysts’ earnings estimates, expanding both its margins and its profit outlook for 2009. And these two bottom-line-related improvements were made despite a slight drop in sales, which stemmed chiefly from the currency effects of an appreciating U.S. dollar.

The bottom line: IBM reported a 2008 fourth-quarter profit that was up 12% from the fourth quarter of 2007. The company earned $4.4 billion, or $3.38 a share, a result that was up 21% from the $2.80 a share from the year before. Analysts had expected IBM to earn only $3.03.  Total revenue was $27 billion, a slight decline from the $28.9 billion reported the year before.

Last Tuesday, IBM – also known as “Big Blue” – said it expects fiscal 2009 earnings of at least $9.20 per share. That’s nearly 5% better than the consensus estimate of $8.77, according to analysts surveyed by Reuters Estimates

This is just one more that Wall Street “surprisingly” got wrong.  In what has been a constant during this financial crisis, companies in industries ranging from steel to high tech have handily exceeded earnings estimates.

A notable exception, of course, has been the financials, where the companies saddled with subprime mortgages have been forced to mark down their portfolios to ridiculously low “market” prices (there is no market) on packaged securities that are trading at a fraction of their theoretical value. This, in turn, is affecting the equity of banks, and therefore their ability to lend.

In such an environment, many analysts adopted an “end of the world” scenario, where companies halt every possible activity in order to preserve cash.  So fund managers that went into premier high tech companies keep getting rewarded now, as these companies report, while their year-end performance metrics were distorted by Wall Street’s bearish bias.

Clearly, Wall Street’s extremely bearish perception is wrong, given the resiliency of the company’s business model.  The virtue of IBM’s model is that it has effectively transformed itself from the cyclical hardware company that gave it its name into a software-and-service-oriented firm that gives it a recurring revenue stream. In addition into this well-thought-out business model that concentrates on high-margin, value-added businesses.

Success with this strategy is due to IBM’s integrated approach to providing a total solution to its clients around the globe, which encompasses not only the determination of the customer needs, but also the provision of every aspect of the required technology solutions – including recurring maintenance, updating and even financing..

That last issue – financing – is crucial these days. And IBM’s long history in the world’s markets has given the company a longtime of recognition abroad, which really helps mitigate competitive threats from unproven newcomers.

IBM leaders have shrewdly increased the company’s investments in the fastest growth areas of the world, increasing its unparalleled geographic diversification as it keeps emphasizing its higher-value businesses – especially software, highly profitable middleware and services.

Geographically, most of the growth continued to come from the so-called “BRIC” countries (Brazil, Russia, India and China), which grew at a 13% clip, and within the emerging markets, which as a whole grew at a 6% clip. Underscoring the soundness of IBM’s global business was the fact that growth was essentially flat for the hard-hit U.S. market. This geographic shift and segment emphasis resulted in higher profit margins, which have more than doubled, causing earnings per share to more than triple in the last six years.

IBM’s global services – which include global technology and global business services – accounted for 53% of fourth quarter sales, while software delivered 24% and systems-and-technology 20%.  Very importantly, new deal signings amounted to a robust $17.2 billion, which gives IBM a solid outlook for 2009.  This evidenced a 20% growth from strategic outsourcing.

What we have here is a solid-and-growing revenue stream, matched with 9% growth, even in software, and a solid outlook.

An area of vulnerability could be financial services, which accounted for 30% of the company’s business.  Fortunately, the U.S. market – which has suffered the most from the global-financial downturn – only accounts for about a quarter of this business. Another challenge is the more-cyclical segment of systems and technology – mainly servers and storage – mainly servers and storage, which accounts for about 20% of sales, experienced a 16% decline in revenue and a 6% decline in margins.

But margin growth of 4.8% and 5.6% in IBM’s much-larger global-technology-services and global-business-services business segments more than compensated for this, resulting in overall margin expansion of 3% from last year.

Most importantly, IBM has a bullet-proof balance sheet and a fantastic cash flow of $7.9 billion. In times when others are suffering, IBM keeps producing a steady and increasing cash flow, and this financial strength allows the company to provide financing to its customers and keep sales rolling in. This is key; it enables IBM to either cherry-pick business from damaged competitors or buy them outright at cheap valuations.

Hence, IBM’s business model has been precisely been retooled over many years to face moments like this and thrive. If there’s a business lesson here it’s that the strong and resilient not only survive, but run away with the market. IBM’s stable and recurring revenue, geographic diversification, focus on higher-value-added business, and financial strength grants it invaluable defenses against both economic and competitive threats.

Recommendation:  With the earnings surprise and the market’s sudden reversal, the shares of International Business Machines Corp. (NYSE: IBM) have rallied aggressively.  But the story is still intact.  What’s more, the many stimulus plans being implemented around the world will no doubt increase demand in many of IBM’s product-and-service areas. Even the huge consolidation in banking and other industries will boost demand for information-technology products and services.

Hence, the upside is still under-appreciated at the current valuation.  At a forward Price/Earnings (P/E) ratio of less than 10.0, and a Price/Earnings to Earnings Growth Rate (P/E to Growth Rate) ‘PEG ratio’ of about 1.0, the shares of this growing company with strongly reliable earnings deserves much higher multiples.  I would not be surprised to see IBM’s stock price going up by 50% over the next couple of years. Buy half a position right now and complete the remaining half by buying on days of market weakness before IBM’s next earnings report. Plan on putting the shares away for two years (**).

[Editor’s Note: Veteran Wall Streeter Horacio Marquez is the author of Money Morning’s hugely popular “Buy, Sell or Hold” series, and is also the editor of the longstanding “Money Moves Alert” trading service. For a free report detailing some of the profit opportunities that service has uncovered, please click here.]

(**) – Special Note of Disclosure: Horacio Marquez holds no interest in IBM Corp.

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