In spite of massive stock buybacks, IBM Corp.'s (IBM) shares have delivered a negative 14%, dividend-adjusted return over the last four years, compared with a 59% return for the S&P 500 and an 87% return for the Nasdaq. Meanwhile, as sales declined one quarter after the next, Big Blue's free cash flow (FCF) fell to $11.6 billion in 2016 from a 2012 peak of $18.2 billion, and is expected to be near 2016 levels this year.
Given that track record, and the fact that Big Blue delivered yet another disappointing set of quarterly results last week, the question of whether it's worth breaking up IBM -- explored from time to time in the past -- is probably worth revisiting. There are three intriguing arguments in favor of breaking up IBM, and two good arguments against doing so, at least to any extensive degree.
One argument for a breakup: IBM units might execute better as parts of smaller companies with dedicated management teams. Though secular trends have contributed to IBM's recent struggles -- the big ones include cloud services adoption, share gains for Intel Corp.-powered (INTC) servers relative to proprietary systems and a shift in IT services contracts towards smaller, more focused deals -- share losses to rivals facing some of the same challenges are also clearly an issue.
One only has to compare IBM's revenue growth in recent quarters with that of rivals such as Microsoft Corp. (MSFT) , SAP SE (SAP) , Accenture Plc (ACN) and Infosys Ltd (INFY) to see the extent to which subpar execution has contributed to its recent woes. Creating a slew of smaller companies focused on taking on such rivals, and whose management teams have the flexibility to make large strategic acquisitions in their particular fields, could help change things.
The second argument: IBM may be worth more on a sum-of-the-parts basis than as an integrated company. This is tough to estimate with any high degree of accuracy, since gauging the valuations public markets or potential acquirers would grant to various IBM units is pure guesswork. But with IBM valued at less than 12 times its current (depressed) FCF, it's not far-fetched to see certain key businesses sporting higher multiples as independent companies.