It wasn't all that long ago that Microsoft (MSFT) - Get Microsoft Corporation (MSFT) Report was thought of as a boring "old tech" company lacking innovation and any sort of vision of the modern future.
PCs were dying, there were fears that Microsoft's Window's related legacy cash flows were drying up, and shares could be bought for 10x earnings. This scenario seems like forever ago, doesn't it?
Who could imagine Microsoft, the ultimate market darling, being anything other than the crown jewel of one's brokerage account? If anything this speaks to our shortened attention spans, or the incredibly fast moving world of Silicon Valley (or Seattle, for that matter) because Microsoft was an absolute dog in 2013.
Oh, how things have changed. On Feb. 4, 2014 Satya Nadella was announced as Microsoft's CEO and Microsoft shares were trading for $36.50. The company had a market cap of approximately $270 billion. Well, flash forward five years and he's added nearly $700 billion to the market cap.
In a relatively short period of time, Microsoft has turned itself into a jack of all trades in terms of the hot technology markets. This company offers investors exposure to basically all of the high growth trends: Cloud, software as a service, security, internet of things, gaming, social media, and even virtual reality, in one simple to own, very high quality package.
At what point in time do we start discussing Nadella as the greatest CEO of all time? I think his name should certainly be in the running for the non-founder version of that award. That debate would rage on forever without a consensus opinion; however, one this is clear: Microsoft was left for dead when he took over and his focus on the cloud has turned his company from a old tech company going the way of the dodo to a brilliant phoenix, having risen from the ashes.
During Q3, the company posted revenue growth of 14% and earnings per share growth of 20%. Cash from operations increased by 11% and free cash flow came in at $11 billion, representing 19% y/y growth. And best of all, this growth isn't likely to be short-lived. Management is currently guiding for double digit top and bottom-line growth for the full-year.
Investors like to focus most on the company's cloud performance and in its recent fiscal year, third quarter results, Microsoft did not disappoint. The company's Commercial Cloud segment posted revenue grew by 41% in the quarter and gross margins from that segment increased by 5%. It's impressive to see a company growing its top-line and taking market share while also increasing margins. This speaks to the power of the Azure platform for enterprise customers.
In the Q3 conference call, Nadella noted that "more than 95% of the Fortune 500 run their workloads on our cloud."
But it wasn't just in the cloud that the company was excelling in the recent quarter. Its hardware posted impressive results, with Surface revenue growth coming in at 21%. LinkedIn revenues posted 27% y/y growth during the quarter. The company's gaming segment only posted 5% growth, but management did note that its gaming service segment posted 12% growth drive by strong Xbox Live and Game Pass subscriber growth. Game Pass has been called the Netflix (NFLX) - Get Netflix, Inc. (NFLX) Report of gaming and I think Microsoft is setting itself up well to benefit from the secular growth story that is gaming and eSports moving forward.
Not only has Microsoft's share price increased by nearly $100 per share since Nadella took over, but the company has continued to be generous with shareholder returns. Microsoft has used an effective share buyback program to reduce its outstanding share count by 6.6% since 2014. Furthermore, the company's dividend has increased from $1.12 a share to its current rate of $1.84/share over this same 5-year period, representing a 64% increase. During Q1, Microsoft returned $7.4 billion to shareholders, representing a 17% increase year over year.
And on top of it all, this company has more than $131 billion in total cash, cash equivalents and short-term investments. In other words, Microsoft remains one of the richest companies on earth even after returning so much cash to shareholders. Microsoft is one of only two companies in the world that can boast a AAA credit rating -- that's higher than the U.S. government's rating.
Between its double-digit growth prospects, strong shareholder returns and stellar balance sheet, what more could you want from an investment opportunity? It should come as no surprise to investors that such a name would trade at a premium. Now, the question remains: just where does fair value lie for this company?
Microsoft is currently trading for approximately 30x trailing twelve month earnings (and 26x forward estimates). This is the stock's richest valuation since the dot-com bubble. I think it's fair to say that shares are expensive at the moment, but then again, this is undoubtedly one of the highest-quality stocks in the market, and if management continues to hit growth targets, the risk could certainly be worth the reward.
Nicholas Ward is long MSFT.