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Warren Buffett famously said at the height of the financial crisis that you only know who's been swimming naked when the tide goes out.
Unfortunately for him and his shareholders at Berkshire Hathaway Inc. (BRK.A, BRK.B), it appears that one of the Sage of Omaha's biggest holdings, International Business Machines Corp. (NYSE: IBM), has been skinny dipping for a long time.
Some astute observers such as Stanley Druckenmiller, Doug Kass, and Fred Hickey, the editor of The High-Tech Strategist, have been warning for months that IBM's business and balance sheet were deteriorating.
The stock market, however, was happy to ignore these warnings and instead allow itself to be fooled by massive debt-financed stock buybacks that were propping up the company's shares.
The tide now appears to have receded, however…
IBM Earnings and Revenues Continue to Deteriorate
On Monday, October 20, IBM announced that it missed Wall Street earnings estimates by a mile, reporting third-quarter earnings of $3.68 per share versus the $4.32 that analysts were expecting. Third-quarter revenue was $22.4 billion, far short of the $23.37 billion consensus and its lowest showing since the first quarter of 2009, during the worst of the financial crisis.
On a year-over-year basis, revenue declined by 5.6%, its worst year-over-year showing since the third quarter of 2009 when sales slumped by 6.9%. During the third quarter, all of the company's business segments and geographic regions showed weakness. The company also announced that it no longer expected to report $20 per share in operating earnings in 2015 and that it saw 2014 earnings per share coming down 2% to 4%.
The company also announced that it would be disposing of its microelectronics business to GlobalFoundries in a transaction in which it will pay GlobalFoundries $1.5 billion to take over the business. IBM will record a total charge of $4.7 billion to exit this commodity business as part of its effort to move toward higher value solutions and services.
The company said that it experienced a "marked slowdown" in customer buying behavior in September and noted that its results point to "unprecedented changes" in the IT industry. The latter comment suggests that IBM may be on the wrong end of secular changes in the industry.
However, the deeper problem is in how the company managed to keep its stock price afloat…
A Buyback Program That Backfired on Every Level
IBM is a case study in the type of debt-financed stock buybacks that have kept the stock market afloat during a period of slow economic growth. Since 2012, the company has borrowed an astounding $33.6 billion while repurchasing $33.7 billion in stock. During that period, the company's shares have rarely traded below $180, suggesting that the company was not buying low.
But then again, American companies rarely buy low when they repurchase their stock since they tend to be focusing on other things when their stock is cheap such as surviving difficult market or economic conditions.
Nonetheless, one has to question whether IBM could have invested some of that nearly $34 billion used to repurchase what will increasingly look like very expensive stock in something more productive… like high-growth businesses.
About the Author
Prominent money manager. Has built top-ranked credit and hedge funds, managed billions for institutional and high-net-worth clients. 29-year career.