Like Big Blue, HP makes most of its hay outside U.S. borders -- 65% of sales happened abroad in the first quarter, and Asia was the fastest-growing region. Both behemoths sport a fairly sector-agnostic mix of hardware, software, and services. IBM specializes in big-iron servers and enterprise-class business software. HP makes more than half of its sales from printers and consumer-level computer systems.
So when the market for computers, software, and support services accelerates, it takes both HP and IBM along on similar joyrides. However, IBM's chosen weapons sell at higher margins than HP's, so a broad market advance seems to benefit Big Blue more than it does HP. Noted thin-margin operator Dell (Nasdaq: DELL ) actually matches HP's margin profile more closely than IBM does.
Not that HP is sitting on its hands, mind you. Its $31.2 billion in first-quarter sales translated into GAAP earnings of $0.96 per share, and it parlayed 8% stronger revenue year over year into 28% higher earnings. That's a sign of tight cost controls, especially since the low-margin personal systems division posted the strongest growth out of all HP divisions.
CEO Mark Hurd raised his 2010 guidance, saying that "HP is well-positioned to outperform the market." Well, maybe if you factor in the company's acquisitive bent. Its $2.7 billion buyout of networking veteran 3Com (Nasdaq: COMS ) looks likely to close in the near future, boosting HP's sales by about $1.3 billion a year. That deal follows on the heels of the $13.9 billion EDS buyout, which created HP's enterprise services division. Buying their way to growth has worked well for Oracle (Nasdaq: ORCL ) and Cisco Systems (Nasdaq: CSCO ) -- both of which are also becoming veritable clones of IBM or HP -- and HP's coffers are well-stocked. We'll probably see more high-impact buyouts from HP.
But the fact that HP's sources of growth are either expensive or low-margin in nature makes me a skeptic when it comes to HP as an investment. IBM is cheaper (on a price-to-earnings basis) and pays a more generous dividend. IBM also boasts a one-star advantage in CAPS ratings, meaning I’m not alone in that assessment.
In my book, Big Blue beats HP hands down. What do you think, dear reader? Spill the beans in the comment box below.