HP Earnings: Not So Strong at Second Glance

NEW YORK ( TheStreet) -- Last week's second quarter earnings from Hewlett-Packard ( HPQ) came in well above analyst expectations, sending the stock to new highs for the year (just south of $25).

But when we look deeper into the numbers, larger evidence of weakness becomes apparent. Quarterly sales dropped in 13 of HP's 15 business segments. Strong negatives were seen in laptop sales (the largest part of the company's PC division), which fell by 24%. The only positive areas were in sales of printing supplies (higher by 2%), and in networking equipment (higher by 1%). On a yearly basis, quarterly net income at HP dropped 32%, to $1 billion, or 55 cents per share. Revenue was 10% lower at $27.6 billion.

Cash flow, however, did see a substantial increase, rising 44%, to $3.6 billion. At 87 cents per share, HP's net income beat Wall Street's consensus estimate at about 81 cents per share on revenue of $28.1 billion. This upside surprise was enough to create a bullish response for the stock. But wider challenges in HP's core markets suggest these elevated levels create an opportunity to sell the stock, not buy it.

Challenges in the PC Market

Longer term, some clear challenges confront the PC market. Recent earnings disappointments at companies like Dell ( DELL) show that the future of the PC market is questionable at best. For HP, these concerns extend into areas like services, servers and printers. So, while there were modest short-term improvements for HP, broader trends in many segments have already started to show significant weakness.

To meet these challenges, HP will need to modify its businesses and adapt to the changing demand of the consumer. But the reality is that successful examples of these types of brand reformation are rare. Apple ( AAPL) is perhaps the best example of a company that faced a desperate situation (lack of competitive edge, stalling stock prices), and still managed to turn things around in a big way. But HP is a very different type of company, and attempts at innovation in music and mobile devices will not be viable.

Period of Transition

Meg Whitman assumed the role of CEO at HP nearly two years ago. The company is still the world's largest producer of IT hardware but its overall performance has been lackluster, as declining sales and new market competition add to its list of challenges. HP's balance sheet remains a point of weakness but this is not altogether surprising given that the company has changed its chief executive four times in the last six years.

Whitman's contributions have brought the company some degree of stability, but HP continues to lag behind in the areas of cloud computing, real-time data analysis, and mobile devices. Cash reserves have shown improvements but is it unlikely HP will be able to generate revenue from its new hardware and software products that match those of the company's past product offerings.

Clearly, HP is in a phase of rebuilding. The company's mainstay storage business saw declines of 13% this quarter, while its advanced storage product sales saw quarterly gains of 42%. Consumer PC sales (which typically use Intel semiconductors) saw declines of 29%. There are signs of progress in that the company is beginning to make PCs that run chips from other manufacturers, and is making moves to use Google's ( GOOG) Android in its tablets.

The wider weakness, however, cannot be ignored. Price cuts by Dell helped contribute to HP's 12% decline in its server business. HP has announced a new product line in low-power servers but these will not add to the company's profit results until 2014. Whether or not HP can complete a successful transition in its central areas of weakness remains a major question going forward. And with the stock trading at highs for the year, upside remains limited and risk to reward ratios favor selling the stock at current levels.

At the time of publication the author held no positions in any of the stocks mentioned.

This article is commentary by an independent contributor, separate from TheStreet's regular news coverage.
Richard Cox is a university teacher in international trade and finance. His articles appear on a variety of Web sites, including MarketBulls.net, Seeking Alpha, FX Street and others. Investing strategies are based on technical and fundamental analysis of all the major asset classes (stock indices, currencies and commodities). Trade ideas are generally based on time horizons of one to six months.

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