International Business Machines (NYSE:IBM) is set to report its first-quarter results after the market closes on Tuesday, April 16. Currency headwinds, divestitures, and an aging mainframe product cycle will conspire to knock down revenue, and earnings will take a hit as well. But the company expects per-share earnings to grow this year, and its mega-acquisition of Red Hat will add fuel to the fire starting in 2020.

What happened last time

While IBM grew revenue in 2018, the company's fourth-quarter results were hurt by an expected drop in hardware sales. Revenue in the systems segment plunged 20% year over year adjusted for currency, the result of a 44% decline in mainframe sales and a 7% decline in storage sales.

A steep decline in mainframe sales is normal at this point in the product cycle. IBM started shipping its latest z14 mainframe in the third quarter of 2017, and it enjoyed five quarters of growth. It was the strongest mainframe cycle in many years, but that strong growth is now being lapped.


Q4 2018

Change (YOY)

Compared to Average Analyst Estimate 


$21.8 billion


Beat by $30 million

Adjusted earnings per share



Beat by $0.05

Data source: IBM. YOY = year over year.

IBM's other segments performed better. Cognitive solutions revenue was up 2%, global business services revenue was up 6%, and technology services and cloud platforms revenue was flat. Margins also improved, with gross margin up 10 basis points and operating margin up 50 basis points year over year. While the systems segment saw gross margin decline, IBM's two services segments enjoyed margin expansion.

Along with its fourth-quarter results, IBM guided for adjusted earnings per share of at least $13.90 in 2019, up from $13.81 in 2018. Full-year free cash flow is expected to be about $12 billion, flat compared to 2018.

What analysts are expecting

While IBM expects earnings to grow this year, the first quarter will be a different story. Analysts expect a year-over-year decline in both revenue and earnings.


Average Analyst Estimate

Change (YOY)


$18.51 billion


Adjusted earnings per share



Data source: Yahoo! Finance. YOY = year over year.

IBM expects to realize about 16% of its full-year adjusted EPS in the first quarter, which works out to $2.22. A combination of the mainframe product cycle and discrete tax items will push more of IBM's earnings out of the first quarter this year. On the revenue front, less mainframe revenue and a currency headwind will hurt IBM's results.

IBM will be changing its reporting segments starting in the first quarter. The new segments will be cloud and cognitive software, global business services, global technology services, systems, and global financing. IBM will also report results for its announced divestitures under an "other" category. The company sold off some stand-alone software businesses in recent months.

IBM's Global Center for Watson IoT in Munich, Germany.

Image source: IBM.

A lot of moving parts

The mainframe cycle and a significant currency headwind are going to make IBM's first-quarter revenue look pretty bad. The company expects a currency headwind of roughly 4 percentage points, and divestitures will also reduce the top line.

The good news is that IBM's cloud strategy, which is heavily focused on hybrid cloud, is looking like the correct strategy more and more with each passing quarter. Other cloud computing providers are starting to embrace hybrid cloud, an admission that an all-in public cloud solution won't work for many companies. IBM's hybrid cloud focus and its acquisition of Red Hat puts it in a great position to benefit from this trend.

While IBM's revenue and earnings are set to decline in the first quarter, the picture looks better when you zoom out and look at the full year. IBM expects to grow earnings per share despite the mainframe product cycle, and it expects to keep free cash flow right around $12 billion. In 2020 and beyond, the addition of Red Hat should boost the company's cloud growth.

Shares of IBM are up about 27% so far this year, partly due to decent fourth-quarter results and partly because the stock sold off toward the end of 2018. Based on the company's earnings guidance, the price-to-earnings ratio sits just above 10. IBM's results aren't going to blow anyone away this year, but such a huge discount for a company with key competitive advantages doesn't make much sense to me.

This article represents the opinion of the writer, who may disagree with the “official” recommendation position of a Motley Fool premium advisory service. We’re motley! Questioning an investing thesis -- even one of our own -- helps us all think critically about investing and make decisions that help us become smarter, happier, and richer.