Hewlett-Packard Is Cheap, For Good Reason

I’ve long had a love/hate relationship with Hewlett-Packard (HPQ). In many ways, it’s a great company. They have their hands in nearly everything tech and they’ve grown to become the largest tech company in the world by revenue. I’m also a big fan of Mark Hurd’s business acumen (despite some of his personal, um…issues) and he engineered something you rarely see—a successful turnaround.

Ultimately, Hurd had to leave HPQ due to inappropriate conduct with a porn actress who was, in fact, not his wife. I was sad to see Hurd go, but at the start of this year, I added his new home, Oracle (ORCL), to my Buy List and I’m glad I did.

Since Hurd left HPQ, I’ve been down on the stock and fortunately I look smart today by telling investors to stay away six months ago. My concern is that the company’s aggressive acquisition plans may be doing more harm than good. HPQ has been going after IBM’s business in a big way and they’ve been shelling out major bucks to do it. I hated the 3Com purchase and the Palm acquisition still gives me nightmares. At the time, I gave Hurd the benefit of the doubt. Now that he’s gone, that benefit is also gone.

It boils down to the question: “Can new CEO Léo Apotheker engineer a turnaround from the previous turnaround?”

I say all of this in the context of last week’s earnings report. Hewlett-Packard reported earnings of $1.36 per share which was seven cents more than Wall Street’s forecast. Wall Street responded by tossing the shares in the garbage. The shares dropped nearly 10% on Wednesday. Since the stock is a Dow component, the plunge distorted the entire index.

What freaked out Wall Street so much? Let’s dig into the numbers. The hitch was that quarterly revenue rose only 4% to $32.30 billion from $32.96 billion. Wall Street had been expecting $32.96 billion. In the wider scope of things, that’s really not a big miss, so what else was going on?

Hewlett-Packard also gave guidance for Q2 and the entire year. For this quarter, HPQ said it expects revenues between $31.4 billion and $31.6 billion, and earnings-per-share between $1.19 and $1.21. Wall Street didn’t like that at all. The consensus was for revenues of $32.6 billion and earnings of $1.25 per share.

HPQ’s full-year forecast (their fiscal year ends in October) was for total revenues between $130 billion and $131.5 billion. The consensus on Wall Street was for $132.91 billion. HPQ said it expects full-year earnings to range between $5.20 and $5.28 per share. The Street was expecting $5.23 per share, so I suppose that’s inline. HPQ has traditionally issued conservative forecasts so they can raise them later. Perhaps they’re doing that now to mask the poor Q2 guidance.

So this seems odd. It appears that HPQ gave lousy near-term guidance but the long-term guidance is still what the Street expects. Yet the stock’s popularity is somewhere between Kim Jong-il and Diphtheria. (Did Hurd get out at the right time? Sure looks like it.)

According to the company’s guidance, the stock is selling for just eight times earnings. The good sign is that their enterprise storage, servers and networking division saw its revenues increase by 22%. Also, the gross margins are up 1.5% to 23.4%.

The stock is tempting, but I’m still steering clear.

HPQ has a few problems to work through. They’re experiencing weakness in consumer PCs and services. I’m also not a big fan of the quality of their earnings. Always be wary when a company grows too much through acquisition. That’s often a sign of trouble. A company should be focused on making earnings not buying them.

I should add that things may change soon. On March 14th, Apotheker will unveil his business plan for Hewlett-Packard. (BTW, Léo, that shouldn’t take six months to do). I’m curious to hear what he has to say, but I don’t have enough confidence to buy before then. Until then, HPQ is a sell.

Posted by on February 28th, 2011 at 7:54 am

The information in this blog post represents my own opinions and does not contain a recommendation for any particular security or investment. I or my affiliates may hold positions or other interests in securities mentioned in the Blog, please see my Disclaimer page for my full disclaimer.