So much of what can be written about IBM Corp.'s (IBM) - Get Report second-quarter results could also be written about its first-quarter results, and a number of other earnings reports Big Blue has put out over the last few years.
Revenue missed estimates and fell on an annual basis, while EPS beat estimates with the help of a favorable tax rate, job cuts and stock buybacks. The growth delivered by "strategic imperatives" is trumpeted, while the pressures faced by many older businesses are downplayed.
The big questions at this point are how long this state of affairs continues, whether there are internal moves Big Blue can make to fix them and whether the company will once more try to buy its way to growth.
IBM reported Q2 revenue of $19.29 billion (down 5% annually, and the 21st consecutive year-over-year decline) and adjusted EPS of $2.97. Revenue, which saw a 200-basis-point hit from a strong dollar, missed a $19.46 billion consensus analyst estimate, while EPS beat a $2.74 consensus. Full-year EPS guidance of "at least" $13.80 was reiterated, as was IBM's expectation that free cash flow (FCF), which last year fell by $1.5 billion to $11.6 billion, would be "relatively flat" in 2016.
Shares are down 3.7% to $148.29 in early afternoon trading Wednesday, and less than $2 above a 52-week low of $146.71. They also fell in April in response to a similar set of mixed results.
Helping EPS beat estimates: IBM had an adjusted tax rate of just 9.2%, thanks to $0.18 per share worth of "discrete tax benefits." Excluding the benefits, the tax rate was 15%, in line with what the company expects for the year.
Also helping: Operating expenses and other income fell 6% to $6 billion thanks to job cuts and forex swings, and another $1.4 billion was spent on buybacks. On the other hand, gross margin fell 180 basis points to 47.2%, thanks partly to a mix shift towards lower-margin cloud revenue streams.
All five of IBM's reporting segments registered sales declines. The Cognitive Solutions segment, which accounts for much of IBM's software sales and an outsized portion of its operating profit, saw revenue drop 2.5% to $4.6 billion, a reversal from Q1's 2.1% growth. The Technology Services & Cloud Platforms segment saw revenue drop 5.1% to $8.4 billion, as declines for integration software and traditional IT services offset cloud growth.
Systems revenue fell 10.4% to $1.7 billion (not quite as bad as expected), as slumping mainframe revenue ahead of a big refresh offset storage growth and a smaller Power server decline. Global Business Services revenue fell 3.7% to $5.1 billion, with lower consulting and outsourcing sales offsetting cloud growth, and Global Financing revenue fell 2.2% to $415 million.
In addition, IBM's contract signings fell 14% to $10.9 billion, and its services backlog fell 4% to $118 billion. On the earnings call, management insisted signings weren't as bad as they looked, with the Q2 weakness partly stemming from quarterly fluctuations.
As many others have noted, cloud app and service adoption has also been a major headwind for older IBM hardware, software and services businesses. But it also can't be ignored how IBM's sales growth continues to underperform that of IT peers with large exposure to "legacy" revenue streams, such as Microsoft Corp. (MSFT) - Get Report , Oracle Corp. (ORCL) - Get Report , SAP SE (SAP) - Get Report and Accenture Plc (ACN) - Get Report .
While IBM's Cognitive Solutions revenue fell in Q2, Microsoft, Oracle and SAP all delivered meaningful software growth during their most recently-reported quarters. And in contrast to IBM's Global Business Services revenue decline, Accenture's consulting and outsourcing revenues rose 4% and 6%, respectively, during the company's May quarter.
Contributing to the top-line pressures is the fact that growth rates for IBM's "strategic imperatives" -- cloud, security, analytics, mobile and social solutions -- are slowing markedly due to both lower organic growth and the lapping of one-year anniversaries for major acquisitions, such as a late-2015 deal to buy The Weather Co.'s digital assets and the $2.6 billion purchase of healthcare analytics firm Truven Health Analytics (closed in April 2016). Strategic imperatives revenue rose just 5% in Q2, after growing 12% in Q1.
Mobile revenue -- benefiting from IBM's enterprise alliance with Apple Inc. (AAPL) - Get Report -- grew 27%. But security and analytics revenue each grew just 4%, and (partly due to the lapping of the Truven deal) cloud revenue growth slowed to 15% from 33%. Likewise, IBM's cloud-as-a-service revenue run rate grew by just $200 million sequentially to $8.8 billion, with annual growth slowing to 30% from 59%.
And while financial engineering continues to help prop up IBM's earnings, the quality of those earnings is still subpar. Assuming free cash flow (FCF) stays at $11.6 billion this year, that would imply FCF per share of $12.35 based on a Q2 diluted share count of 939.6 million. That's about 11% below IBM's 2017 adjusted EPS guidance.
Keeping free cash flow strong when both sales and margins remain under pressure is generally a tall order, even with an elite accounting department on hand. With another disappointing quarter on the books, the pressure on Big Blue to make big changes to its business, whether via restructurings, management overhauls, acquisitions or some combination thereof, is as strong as ever.
IBM's shares fell 4.3% to $147.44 by Wednesday's close.
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