Associated Press coverage of Hewlett-Packard's (NYSE: HPQ ) quarterly earnings report on Wednesday opened with this statement: "Hewlett-Packard's slump is deepening as the world's largest personal computer maker scrambles to meet the growing demand for more versatile and less expensive mobile devices."
The AP's coverage of the earnings report buried the fact that HP actually beat earnings expectations and raised its outlook for the current fiscal year. Moreover, while it's factually accurate that HP is the world's largest personal-computer maker, PCs are actually a minor component of HP's overall business from a profit perspective.
Based on HP's strong stock performance on Thursday -- shares rose 17% to close at $24.86, after hitting a new 52-week high of $24.95 -- investors are starting to see past the weak PC business. As I have previously written, while the PC group is the largest HP business segment by revenue, it is no longer a major profit driver for the company. Instead, investors should value HP based on its opportunities in other business segments, such as printing and enterprise IT.
PC decline is overblown
After IDC reported last month that HP's PC unit shipments had declined 23.7% in Q1, a flurry of concern about HP's PC business (re)surfaced. Many investors worried that HP was bearing the brunt of the PC market's weakness. Last week, key competitor Dell (NASDAQ: DELL ) reported a decline in PC sales and massive margin erosion for last quarter, which further heightened concerns about HP's PC results.
However, while HP saw a larger decline in PC revenues than Dell last quarter, it was because the two companies adopted opposite strategies. Dell chose to cut prices in an attempt to gain market share. As a result, its "End User Computing" division's operating margin dropped from 6.5% to 2.5%.
Meanwhile, HP decided to prioritize profitability over market share. PC segment operating margin fell more modestly year over year, from 5.4% to 3.2%. That drop led to a 54% decline in the division's operating income, compared with 2012. That said, PC operating income actually improved by $16 million compared with the previous quarter.
In short, HP's apparently disastrous PC results were actually the result of a conscious decision to pursue profitability rather than market share in the PC business. Since the PC market will continue to decline over time, emphasizing profitability over market share seems like a very good strategy.
Profit comes from elsewhere
Investors also need to put the PC business in perspective compared with HP as a whole. The segment's operating income of $239 million last quarter represented less than 10% of total segment operating income across the company (which excludes unallocated costs). Since the PC business involves minimal fixed costs, HP should be able to manage future PC revenue declines without bleeding red ink. For example, PC segment profitability increased sequentially last quarter in spite of an 8% revenue decline.
By contrast, the printing division produced operating income of $958 million last quarter: quadruple that of the PC group. The printer business has rebounded strongly this year because of HP's industry-leading position and new initiatives to improve sales and profitability.
Looking forward, the yen's depreciation will lead to lower costs for HP's laser printers in the second half of 2013, because HP sources many components from Canon in Japan. This may be offset somewhat by stronger price competition from Japanese printer manufacturers such as Brother and Canon, but the net effect will probably be positive for HP.
Foolish bottom line
HP's turnaround is not yet complete, but it is starting to make visible progress in areas such as printing. Moreover, the company trades for less than seven times projected earnings for the current year. Investors need to recognize HP's PC business for what it is: a small (though highly visible) component of HP.
With the PC group already providing a very modest contribution to HP's overall profitability, any future declines there could be easily offset by the company's ongoing cost cuts and/or recovery of other business lines. While CEO Meg Whitman has repeatedly stressed that it will take a few years for this recovery to take hold, HP still seems like a bargain at its current valuation.
The massive wave of mobile computing has done much to unseat the major players in the PC market, including venerable technology names like Hewlett-Packard. However, HP's rapidly shifting its strategy under the new leadership of CEO Meg Whitman. But does this make HP one of the least-appreciated turnaround stories on the market, or is this a minor blip on its road to irrelevance? The Motley Fool's technology analyst details exactly what investors need to know about HP in our new premium research report. Just click here now to get your copy today.