Wow! Stop the presses! Gimme rewrite!
You've seen the market's response to the megadeal announced by
last Thursday -- the "seven-year, $16 billion"
agreement by IBM to supply parts to Dell.
Sure, the market loved it. The
spurted 2.1% Thursday and another 2.8% Friday. But something about that deal has been bugging me ever since Thursday. I kept pinching myself and rereading the press releases, convinced there had to be more to this than met the eye. I mean, signing a zero-commitment purchase order, no matter what "in the best of all worlds, this could add up to
blank" figure is written in, just isn't that big a deal.
I called some People Who Know at both places and spent a lot of time on the phone Thursday and Friday, talking to anyone I could find to shed some light on this blockbuster nonstory. And I worried about it over the weekend, still convinced there had to be something I was missing.
I don't think so. But there are lessons to be learned here. Excuse this upon-further-thought epistle; understanding some moves takes a while.
It was one of the strangest press releases and press conferences I've run into in some time, IBM -- which already sells, according to an insider, in "the low hundreds of millions" of dollars worth of hard disks to Dell every year -- claims a huge leap forward with this deal. Dell, for its part, sits smiling like the Cheshire Cat. Because the deal, if we can call it that, is worth $16 billion only in the loosest sense: That's a rough estimate of what Dell
spend with Big Blue over the next seven years, if all goes well. But there's no real commitment to spend
Indeed, IBM representatives were falling all over themselves Thursday to reassure analysts that the deal "would not significantly increase" sales in the early years of the contract. And Dell? From Dell Senior Vice President Mike Lambert: "We're not locked in. It's a best-efforts basis. We said that if things go where we expect them, the business ought to add up to $16 billion."
Call it a standing, open-ended purchase order, nothing more.
But a market hungry for good news on the PC companies and PC-component suppliers jumped on this: Dell closed up a little Thursday, a lot Friday. Ditto IBM.
Press releases are tricky things. Sometimes they announce real news. Sometimes they have useful little factoids buried in them. And sometimes, like this one, they're all huff and puff. Tech investors have to watch, especially for the latter, which can throw up a reality-distortion field of fierce dimensions.
Was this just a gimme -- Dell throwing a "why not, it's free?" bone to IBM? (And isn't it an interesting world where Dell is throwing
IBM's way?) Was it an example of the increasing Hollywood-ization of the technology business, which is now orchestrated and stage-managed as carefully as a
Siegfried & Roy
Both, in spades.
But I'd say this one has an awful lot of the gimme in it. IBM chief Lou Gerstner wants to move the company toward earning bigger returns on its R&D expenditures by becoming much more of a technology merchant to other computer-industry companies. IBM needs some splashy affirmation that its stuff -- for example, its sensational DeskStar hard disks -- is so good that even the best and hottest PC companies want to line up to buy it.
So let's assume IBM goes to Dell and proposes a multiyear agreement in which Dell, already an important IBM component customer, will say it's going to buy just a goshawful load of IBM parts, assuming IBM stays on top of the technology and assuming IBM gives Dell some lowball prices. Dell looks around, sees no downside in this -- after all, it isn't committing anything, just saying it hopes this works out -- and delivers the gimme to IBM.
The release is written; the press conference is held;
The Wall Street Journal
gets a little piece of the story a day early and, to its credit, breaks the story Thursday morning ... if in a remarkably content-free story. The rest of the press quickly falls into line (Did you hear the jungle drums all day Thursday? Deafening!) and, whoa, the market decides This Is Meaningful. So both stocks get a nice boost.
Logrolling. Nothing more.
And worth pondering, as you look at how today's market reacts to corporate announcements. Those Siegfried & Roy guys are awfully good -- and they sure know which buttons to push for their audiences, not to mention their tigers.
By the way, one of those interesting factoids I spoke of was buried deep in the Dell-IBM announcement. In a cross-licensing arrangement, Dell will get access to IBM's patent portfolio at sharply lower rates than Dell has been paying. By one estimate, Dell could save 1% of the selling price of each of its computers, thanks to reduced IBM royalties.
Nice kicker. I wonder if IBM offered that to grease the wheels, or if a smart Dell negotiator, very late in the game, did a Detective Columbo turn: "Oh, and just one more little thing, Mr. So-and-so. Y'know, I think we also need..."
Jim Seymour is president of Seymour Group, an information-strategies consulting firm working with corporate clients in the U.S., Europe and Asia, and a longtime columnist for PC Magazine. Under no circumstances does the information in this column represent a recommendation to buy or sell stocks. At the time of publication, neither Seymour nor Seymour Group held positions in the companies discussed in this column, though positions can change at any time. While Seymour cannot provide investment advice or recommendations, he invites your feedback.