"Hope springs eternal in the human breast" (Alexander Pope)
As it does for most investors. People do not like to accept the notion that a business will lose relevancy, and its value will fall. Especially really big companies that are household brand names. Investors, like customers, prefer to think large, established companies will continue to be around, and even do well. It makes everyone feel better to have a optimistic attitude about large, entrenched organizations.
And with such optimism investors have cheered Microsoft for the last 15 months. After a decade of trading up and down around $26/share, Microsoft stock has made a significant upward move to $41 â€“ a new decade-long high. This price has people excited Microsoft will reach the dot.com/internetboom high of $60 in 2000.
After discovering that Windows 8, and the Surface tablet, were nowhere near reaching sales expectations after Christmas 2012 â€“ and that PC sales were declining faster than expected â€“ investors were cheered in 2013 to hear that CEO Steve Ballmer would resign. After much speculation, insider Satya Nadella was named CEO, and he quickly made it clear he was refocusing the company on mobile and cloud. This started the analysts, and investors, on their recent optimistic bent.
CEO Nadella has cut the price of Windows by 70% in order to keep hardware manufacturers on Windows for lower cost machines, and he announced the company's #1 sales and profit product â€“ Office â€“ was being released on iOS for iPad users. Investors are happy to see this action, as they hope that it will keep PC sales humming. Or at least slow the decline in sales while keeping manufacturers (like HP) in the Microsoft Windows fold. And investors are likewise hopeful that the long awaited Office announcement will mean booming sales of Office 365 for all those Apple products in the installed base.
But, there's a lot more needed for Microsoft to succeed than these announcements. While Microsoft is the world's #1 software company, it is still under considerable threat and its long-term viability remains unsure.
Windows is in a tough spot. After this price decline, Microsoft will need to increase sales volume by 2.5X to recoup lost profits. Meanwhile, Chrome laptops are considerably cheaper for customers and more profitable for manufacturers. And whether this price cut will have any impact on the decline in PC sales is unclear, as users are switching to mobile products for ease-of-use reasons that go far beyond price. Microsoft has taken an action to defend and extend its installed base of manufacturers who have been threatening to move, but the impact on profits is still likely to be negative and PC sales are still going to decline.
Meanwhile, the move to offer Office on iOS is clearly another offer to defend the installed Office marketplace, and unlikely to create a lot of incremental revenue and profit growth. The PC market has long been much bigger than tablets, and almost every PC had Office installed. Shrinking at 12-14% means a lot less Windows Office is being sold. And, In tablets iOS is not 100% of the market, as Android has substantial share. Offering Office on iOS reaches a lot of potential machines, but certainly not 100% as has been the case with PCs.
Further, while there are folks who look forward to running Office on an iOS device, Office is not without competition. Both Apple and Google offer competitive products to Office, and the price is free. For price sensitive users, both individuals and corporations, after 4 years of using competitive products it is by no means a given they all are ready to pay $60-$100 per device per year. Yes, there will be Office sales Microsoft did not previously have, but whether it will be large enough to cover the declining sales of Office on the PC is far from clear. And whether current pricing is viable is far, far from certain.
While these Microsoft products are the easiest for consumers to understand, Nadella's move to make Microsoft successful in the mobile/cloud world requires succeeding with cloud products sold to corporations and software-as-service providers. Here Microsoft is late, and facing substantial competition as well.
Just last week Google cut the price of its Compute Engine cloud infrastructure (IaaS) platform and App Engine cloud app platform (PaaS) products 30-32%. Google cut the price of its Cloud Storage and BigQuery (big data analytics) services by 68% and 85% as it competes headlong for customers with Amazon. Amazon, which has the first-mover position and large customers including the U.S. federal government, cut prices within 24 hours for its EC2 cloud computing service by 30%, and for its S3 storage service by over 50%. Amazon also reduced prices on its RDS database service approximately 28%, and its Elasticache caching service by over 33%.
To remain competitive, Microsoft had to react this week by chopping prices on its Azure cloud computing products 27%-35%, reducing cloud storage pricing 44%-65%, and whacking prices on its Windows and Linux memory-intensive computing products 27%-35%. While these products have allowed the networking division formerly run by now CEO Nadella to be profitable, it will be increasingly difficult to maintain old profit levels on existing customers, and even a tougher problem to profitably steal share from the early cloud leaders â€“ even as the market grows.
While optimism has grown for Microsoft fans, and the share price has moved distinctly higher, it is smart to look at other market leaders who obtained investor favorability, only to quickly lose it.
Blackberry was known as RIM (Research in Motion) in June, 2007 when the iPhone was launched. RIM was the market leader, a near monopoly in smart phones, and its stock was riding high at $70. In August, 2007, on the back of its dominant status, the stock split â€“ and moved on to a split adjusted $140 by end of 2008. But by 2010, as competition with iOS and Android took its toll RIM was back to $80 (and below.) Today the rechristened company trades for $8.
Sears was once the country's largest and most successful retailer. By 2004 much of the luster was coming off when KMart purchased the company and took its name, trading at only $20/share. Following great enthusiasm for a new CEO (Ed Lampert) investors flocked to the stock, sure it would take advantage of historical brands such as DieHard, Kenmore and Craftsman, plus leverage its substantial real estate asset base. By 2007 the stock had risen to $180 (a 9x gain.) But competition was taking its toll on Sears, despite its great legacy, and sales/store started to decline, total sales started declining and profits turned to losses which began to stretch into 20 straight quarters of negative numbers. Meanwhile, demand for retail space declined, and prices declined, cutting the value of those historical assets. By 2009 the stock had dropped back to $40, and still trades around that value today — as some wonder if Sears can avoid bankruptcy.
Best Buy was a tremendous success in its early years, grew quickly and built a loyal customer base as the #1 retail electronics purveyor. But streaming video and music decimated CD and DVD sales. On-line retailers took a huge bite out of consumer electronic sales. By January, 2013 the stock traded at $13. A change of CEO, and promises of new formats and store revitalization propped up optimism amongst investors and by November, 2014 the stock was at $44. However, market trends â€“ which had been in place for several years â€“ did not change and as store sales lagged the stock dropped, today trading at only $25.
Microsoft has a great legacy. It's products were market leaders. But the market has shifted â€“ substantially. So far new management has only shown incremental efforts to defend its historical business with product extensions â€“ which are up against tremendous competition that in these new markets have a tremendous lead. Microsoft so far is still losing money in on-line and gaming (xBox)where it has lost almost all its top leadership since 2014 began and has been forced to re-organize. Nadella has yet to show any new products that will create new markets in order to "turn the tide" of sales and profits that are under threat of eventual extinction by ever-more-capable mobile products.
While optimism springs eternal long-term investors would be smart to be skeptical about this recent improvement in the stock price. Things could easily go from mediocre to worse in these extremely competitive global tech markets, leaving Microsoft optimists with broken dreams, broken hearts and broken portfolios.
(Adam hartung is the managing director at Spark Partners.)
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