Is it time for investors to shed their Hewlett-Packard ( HPQ) shares and snap up some Dell ( DELL)? That's the core of a call by Investec analyst Eric Ross, who contends in a research note that H-P looks dear in light of its growth outlook, while Dell may not be as expensive as everybody thinks. His firm hasn't done banking for either company. Ross's note, which focuses on relative valuations of those names, doesn't address the bigger question of whether hardware names in general are overpriced. And plenty of investors would dispute his notion that Dell deserves to trade for 32 times earnings. But the skepticism about H-P's recent run-up is worth noting, in light of its own and competitors' prospects. Measure H-P's recent stratospheric stock price rise against its anemic growth outlook, says Ross, and it starts to look pretty pricey. In comparison, he thinks Dell's price doesn't look so unreasonable, given its more promising growth prospects. As a backdrop, consider that shares of H-P have stealthily shot up nearly 70% since hitting a low Oct. 9, outpacing the S&P 500 by 54% based on Friday's close of $18.91. Meanwhile, market share leader Dell has tacked on a mere 10%, underperforming the broader market by 6%. Now look to the companies' respective growth estimates for next year: H-P is expected to post sales gains of a mere 2%, while Dell's growth is pegged at a relatively robust 15%, according to consensus estimates. Dell claims the highest revenue growth projection in the hardware space, at 8%, Ross points out -- that's well above runner-up IBM ( IBM), where growth is expected to come mostly from software and services. Meanwhile, Gateway ( GTW) and Apple ( AAPL) are expected to grow 7% and 3%, respectively. Other points in Dell's favor: It's increased its PC market share from 4% in 1996 to 16% in the most recent quarter, while H-P's share has been stuck at about 15% in the same period.
Dell also boasts the best operating margins in the hardware space, at 8.3% in the most recent quarter, compared with H-P's 4.9%, Apple's 1.4% and Gateway's 7.2%. Too, Dell's push into higher-margin markets, such as servers, storage, switches and printers, should give those numbers more of a lift. Meanwhile, Ross thinks H-P won't have an easy time in its bid to ape IBM, modeling itself as a one-stop shop for hardware, services and software. Besides dealing with harsh competition from Big Blue, it will have to contend with other downsides of the services business, such as a much longer selling cycle. Ross thinks H-P's stock price surge over the past few months was based on its progress in merger-related cost-cutting -- and he gives the company credit for running ahead of schedule on that front. But now the hardest merger integration work remains, he says, and in the meantime, there's little room for more share price gains. "Valuation is a bit rich for a company growing below the growth of its peers, and with much of the easy low-hanging fruit cost reductions of its integration behind it," he writes.