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IBM's Rare Miss Crushed the Dow Today

By Anders Bylund - Apr 19, 2013 at 2:03PM

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Unfortunately, that's not even the worst news out of Armonk today. Big Blue is considering a very bad idea.

Here's something you don't see often. Shares of IBM (IBM 0.44%) have fallen as much as 7.7% today on an earnings miss -- an event as rare as chicken lips. The stock's plunge took more than 100 points off the Dow Jones Industrial Average (^DJI 0.60%) index, dragging the blue-chip index into the red today despite the gains being made by 25 of its 30 components. The Dow's price-weighted nature magnifies IBM's every move, and today it's working against the index.

The company is usually as reliable as time itself. Big Blue hasn't missed Wall Street's earnings targets since 2005, for crying out loud. Yet it did this week.

First-quarter sales fell 5% year over year to $23.4 billion. Non-GAAP earnings increased 8% to $3 per share but still fell just short of analyst targets of $3.05. As if that didn't hurt enough, management held full-year targets steady but lowered guidance for the second quarter. Business is supposed to pick up again in the back half of 2013.

Orders from the U.S. government fell 13%, at least partly due to the sequester action in the first quarter. IBM also expected Chinese government orders to come in weak but forgot to account for ripple effects among businesses owned by the Chinese state and various provinces and cities. IBM's CFO called this China syndrome a "once every 10 year event," and it was exacerbated by a weak yen. In other words, IBM doesn't expect that particular headwind to come back anytime soon.

But IBM won't just rest on its laurels and hope for the best. Management is taking some drastic action to turn things around. That's the good news. The bad news is that I'm not sure Big Blue is making the right moves.

These System P servers may be moving to China soon. Source: IBM's news room.

IBM's business model has long been an archetype for the enterprise computing industry. Its top-to-bottom combination of hardware, software, and services is the envy of Silicon Valley. Networking giant Cisco Systems (CSCO 0.53%) added a server division in order to get closer to the IBM ideal. Oracle (ORCL 1.16%) walked further down the same path when it acquired Sun Microsystems. And the list goes on.

It's not an easy path to follow. Cisco's server sales are finally gaining some traction, four years after it entered the market and scared away several longtime partners. That's a long and painful road, even if the potential payoff is great. I'm not at all sure that Oracle is getting its money's worth for the $5.6 billion it spent on Sun. Hardware sales have dwindled to $671 million in the recently reported third quarter, down from a quarterly peak of $1.2 billion in the summer of 2010. Many rivals find their way to the IBM model, but only Big Blue truly knows how to make it work.

But systems-builder magazine CRN reports that IBM is about to sell its mid-tier server operations to Lenovo, only a decade after it sold its consumer systems division to the Chinese titan. Lenovo has confirmed that it's discussing a major acquisition with somebody, though nothing is writ in stone quite yet. But it does seem that IBM is about to strip off an important part of its corporate identity.

That would instantly dismantle IBM's trend-setting top-to-bottom business model. The synergy value of its software and services will be diminished. Like I said, I don't like this idea at all.

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