IBM's Still Stuck in Quicksand

NEW YORK ( TheStreet) -- Back in May, as shares of IBM ( IBM) broke above well above $200 per share, I argued that the bellwether company had gotten overrated. While there's no denying that Big Blue is still posting solid annual profits, revenue has been completely non-existent. This is despite management spending upwards of $16 billion over the past five years in acquisitions.

Interestingly, though, unlike, say, Hewlett-Packard ( HPQ) and Microsoft ( MSFT), which are constantly in analysts' crosshairs for criticism, the Street has never raised a voice towards IBM to complain about its underperformance. Nor has the stock ever gotten cheap, at least until recently.

While I do believe IBM's 8% pullback since my May article has lowered the stock to a more attractive level, I don't see any near-term catalysts to spur me to buy. With the company due to report its third-quarter results on Wednesday, IBM needs to show not only that it can develop a competitive edge against the likes of Oracle ( ORCL) in the enterprise, but management needs to address emerging threats in the cloud from (among others) Salesforce.com ( CRM).

The good news is that, on more than one occasion, management has highlighted these specific points on which it needs to focus. So it's not as if IBM does not have a plan. The problem has been the execution, which has failed to manufacture growth. And when you couple the struggle to grow revenue with declining margins, you have to question either the credibility of that plan or the competence of management. On Wednesday, both will be on display.

As has been the case for the past couple of quarters, the Street's expectations seem optimistic. While the earnings-per-share estimate has remained unchanged over the past 30 days, estimates have inched up by 3 cents per share and now call for a profit of $3.96 per share, which would represent a 9% increase from the company's profit of $3.62 per share a year ago.

Revenue, meanwhile, remains the somber story. The Street is expecting revenue to come in at $24.73 billion, which is a minimal decline of less than 1%. The good news here is that if IBM does reach its revenue target, it would suggest meaningful sequential improvement when considering that revenue declined 3% in the July quarter. But this goes back to my original point and what has been -- in my opinion -- an undeserved love-fest with this company.

When you consider that IBM has averaged 3% revenue declines over the past four quarters, the extent to which the company has been given a pass has been remarkable. It's as if no one dares to get critical. This is even though IBM's profits have also shown an average of 3% year-over-year declines over the past four quarters, including a 15% decline in the July quarter, caused (in part) by a 2.5% decline in margins.

This is where IBM bulls are often quick to remind me that, even with the profit decline, the company still managed to beat earnings by 13 cents. While this may be true, let's not be too quick to dismiss the fact that 12 cents out of the 13-cent beat was due to a favorable tax rate. The numbers are not often as they seem.

On Wednesday, though, management must "beat" more convincingly. It can start by showing better growth in its services business, which posted 4% decline in the July quarter. Given that the service unit is IBM's largest segment, this is a concern. And given that the 4% decline in the July quarter followed a 4% and 2% decline in April and January quarters, respectively, leads me to believe that rivals like Accenture ( ACN) and Infosys ( INFY) have begun to steal market share.

Even with the uninspiring growth situation, there are still plenty of positives with IBM. For instance, there are very few companies that can compare to IBM when in terms of cash flow and return on equity. Not to mention, IBM still pays one of the best yields on the market. My problem has been the lack of growth, which has now coincided with decreasing profits.

What's more, given what is still a weak enterprise-spending environment, I don't expect much (if any) improvement in IBM's near term results, making the stock very unattractive. This is despite shares being now at what I believe to be fair value territory. But should the stock fall to, say, $175 per share or lower, growth or no growth, I'd have to reconsider.

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

This article was written by an independent contributor, separate from TheStreet's regular news coverage.
Richard Saintvilus is a co-founder of StockSaints.com where he serves as CEO and editor-in-chief. After 20 years in the IT industry, including 5 years as a high school computer teacher, Saintvilus decided his second act would be as a stock analyst - bringing logic from an investor's point of view. His goal is to remove the complicated aspect of investing and present it to readers in a way that makes sense.

His background in engineering has provided him with strong analytical skills. That, along with 15 years of trading and investing, has given him the tools needed to assess equities and appraise value. Richard is a Warren Buffett disciple who bases investment decisions on the quality of a company's management, growth aspects, return on equity, and price-to-earnings ratio.

His work has been featured on CNBC, Yahoo! Finance, MSN Money, Forbes, Motley Fool and numerous other outlets.

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