Big Blue's Pink Slip Party Turns Green

Once more, IBM (NYSE: IBM  ) is a growth story. Big Blue last night reported a 17.8% year-over-year bump in per-share earnings during 2009's second quarter, besting last quarter's 4% gain.

But this isn't your average growth story. IBM suffered a 13.3% decline in revenue -- better than the 15.3% drop that Intel (Nasdaq: INTC  ) endured, but far short of Google's (Nasdaq: GOOG  ) 2.9% gain. Cost cuts and share buybacks created earnings growth where organically, there was almost none.

And the cuts were massive. Gross margin improved better than two percentage points, thanks to IBM's "strategic transformation" -- headcount reductions, plus some added efficiencies -- while other income and expenses fell 18.8% during the quarter. In short, IBM cut costs and realized efficiencies far faster than its revenue fell.

In tech, cut-to-grow stories have become common. Dell (Nasdaq: DELL  ) produced millions in free cash flow despite a 23% drop in revenue in its most recent quarter. Oracle's (Nasdaq: ORCL  ) sales dipped more than 5% in its fiscal Q4, but the database king still beat earnings estimates by stretching its operating margin.

For its part, Big Blue says that Q2 marks 19 out of 20 quarters of margin improvement, and that its product mix is leading the way to gains. I have no reason to doubt that, and I like owning shares in a well-managed business. I just want to be clear about what I own, exactly. Margins aren't the story with Big Blue. Cash management is.

Since December, IBM has retired more than $3 billion in debt not related to financing for its customers. And in Q2, Big Blue spent $1.7 billion on share repurchases. Diluted shares outstanding fell 4.7% year over year.

In other words, management is doing what it can with what it has, while also positioning itself for long-term growth. The strategy has thus far paid off: IBM yesterday upped its full-year earnings guidance from $9.20 to $9.70 per share.

That welcome sign means that IBM's strategic transformation is producing the results management had hoped for, and that shareholders won't have to suffer through 2009. But beyond December, Big Blue will need real growth -- revenue growth -- to return.

Don't wait for the snow, IBM.

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Fool contributor Tim Beyers had stock and options positions in Google and stock positions in IBM and Oracle at the time of publication. Check out Tim's portfolio holdings and Foolish writings, or connect with him on Twitter as @milehighfool. The Motley Fool is also on Twitter as @TheMotleyFool. The Fool's disclosure policy prefers its blue navy.


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