The landscape of the tech industry is dotted with the remains of once-powerful players that grew fast, led for a while, and then failed to pivot with the changing times. It's possible to have a strong second or third act, though, and for a time, it appeared IBM (NYSE:IBM) was on course to achieve a good one. Unfortunately for its shareholders, there was a speed bump on the road to rebound last quarter: The company reported this week that revenue shrank, and growth in its vital "strategic imperatives" businesses slowed. Seriously, when IBM's legacy mainframe business is the strongest performer in a given quarter, one has to see that as a problem.
In this segment of the Market Foolery podcast, host Chris Hill and senior analyst Andy Cross talk about the investment thesis around IBM stock, Warren Buffett's view, the untapped power of Watson, and more.
A full transcript follows the video.
This video was recorded on Oct. 17, 2018.
Chris Hill: Shares of IBM are hitting a 52-week low after IBM's third-quarter report. Big Blue had grown revenue for three straight quarters. That streak is over now. To the extent that a $120 billion company can be in trouble, I look at IBM and... not that IBM is in danger of going away, but this is a stalled vehicle on the side of the road.
Andy Cross: It sure is stalled. There had been some faint lights at the end of the tunnel here over the past couple of quarters, when they've been able to grow their quarterly revenues. That flipped this quarter. Their strategic imperatives, which is really their cloud business, their data analytics business, saw some stumbling blocks. Their growth slowed there. They saw a drop in new signings in that business. That stung a little bit. It's been a very tough go for IBM. Their best business this quarter, and really a lot this year, is their legacy mainframe business. That will tend to tail off next year.
There's a lot of excitement in their strategic imperatives in the investments they're making, crypto asset investments they're making, when it comes to cloud computing, when it comes to data analytics, the Watson side. But that's just a really long putt. For this, I really want to be a believer, just because the story of IBM. But I don't own shares, and I think following the direction of Warren Buffett, who exited most of the IBM positions in Berkshire Hathaway, is the way to go with this one.
Hill: Yeah. In some ways, that was a pretty damning, when Buffett sold out of that, when you consider some of the other things that he's held on to. You mentioned Watson. That's the thing that's a little surprising to me. Yes, there are lots of large tech companies that have cloud businesses. To my knowledge, IBM is the one that's got the most recognizable brand, the Watson brand, what they've done with that. The fact that they can't figure out a way to leverage that into a significantly growing business, and therefore a significantly growing share price, is troubling.
Cross: Also, there are 360,000 employees at IBM, I think is the number. We've seen this with General Electric, these big legacy enterprises, it's very hard to get these things turned around, especially in a market today that IBM is operating in. It has aggressive competition, very smart competition, upstart competition, that's been around and doing things very aggressively. IBM lacks a little that cachet. I agree. The Watson brand is extremely powerful. It's been a nice integration into IBM's business. But they haven't seen enough of the big wins to be able to grow the strategic imperatives. And the fact that it slowed a little bit this quarter, when that was really the bright spot that investors were waiting for -- they were expecting it to be north of 50% of revenues. It fell short of that this quarter on a trailing basis. The momentum is not with IBM, and clearly investors are selling off the stock today.
Hill: It's still a big business.