Armonk, N.Y.-based IBM is "running out of levers" to support its traditional earnings growth of around 10%, as margins are "maxed out" and share repurchases are already greater than free cash flow, ISI Group analyst Brian Marshall said in a note Tuesday. "Headwinds are getting stronger for the IT service industry."
The company reports fourth-quarter results after the market close on Tuesday. IBM edged past Wall Street's earnings forecast in its third-quarter results, released in October, but currency pressures weighed heavily on revenue.
A tech bellwether, IBM has traditionally been seen as a barometer for tech spending. Last week, chipmaker Intel (INTC - Get Report), another key player, reported its own fourth-quarter results, exceeding analysts' estimates, but delivered weaker-than-expected guidance.Analysts surveyed by Thomson Reuters expect IBM to report revenue of $29.07 billion and earnings of $5.25 a share, compared to $29.5 billion and $4.71 a share a year earlier. The fourth quarter of 2011, however, included around $240 million of revenue from IBM's divested Retail Store Solutions business. For the current quarter, this will hurt revenue comparisons by about 1 percentage point for IBM overall and 5 points for its hardware business. Topeka Capital Markets analyst Brian White expects IBM to meet or slightly miss his fourth-quarter revenue estimate of $28.9 billion, but meet his earnings forecast of $5.23 a share. "For 2013, we expect muted IT spending, but we believe IBM's high recurring revenue stream and more defensive portfolio will prove attractive to investors," he wrote in a note released on Tuesday. Specifically, the analyst predicts strength in fourth-quarter hardware and software, helping offset the company's services business. Services accounted for 58% of IBM's total third-quarter revenue. Global Technology Services came in at $9.9 billion, while Global Business Services segment revenue was $4.5 billion.