Can anyone save HP?June 27, 2012: 1:00 PM ET
Running the fiscally challenged state of California might have been an easier task for Meg Whitman than trying to turn around Hewlett-Packard.
That's what she would be doing right now if she hadn't lost the Golden State gubernatorial race to Jerry Brown in 2010. Alas, she has to "settle" for the more lucrative but arguably more thankless job as CEO of troubled HP.
For HP, this really is a case of adding insult to injury. HP was the third worst Dow stock in 2011, tumbling nearly 40%. Shares are now trading below $20 -- their lowest level since May 2005. To put that in perspective, May 2005 was just a few months after Carly Fiorina was shown the door. Eons ago in the fast-moving world of tech. Whitman is HP's fifth CEO (counting two interim chiefs) since Fiorina's ouster. HP is rivaling Yahoo (YHOO) in terms of C-suite shakeups.
Making matters worse, HP can't really blame the volatile market and sluggish economy for its woes. It is struggling even as many of its partners and competitors thrive.
Shares of Microsoft (MSFT) are up 16% in 2012. Chipmaker Intel (INTC) has gained more than 8%. IBM (IBM) is up 5% and is less than 10% below its all-time high. That really has to sting considering that Big Blue is the company HP has been trying for years to mimic. The failure of HP to replicate the software/services/servers model that IBM has down pat has prompted me to brand HP as Little Blue and IBM Lite.
Then there's Oracle (ORCL). Shares of the Larry Ellison-run software company are up 10% this year. Its success may be even tougher for HP to stomach than IBM's, given that Ellison loves taking jabs at HP whenever he can and that Oracle president Mark Hurd joined Oracle after being forced out of the CEO spot of HP in the wake of a bizarre expense report scandal. Since Hurd was hired by Oracle in September 2010, shares of Oracle are up 24% while shares of HP are down 50%.
So what can Whitman do to save HP? She's already started to downsize the company, announcing 27,000 layoffs that will take place between now and fiscal 2014. Whitman also reversed the decision by her short-lived predecessor Leo Apotheker to spin-off the company's PC business. Instead, that unit is now being merged with HP's cash cow printer division, a move that probably makes sense given how consumer-focused both businesses are.
But is restructuring enough? Hurd was notorious for cost cutting too. Reducing headcount may make profits look good in the short term. However, waves of pink slips and early retirement packages do nothing to add to revenues over the long haul. Only cool, innovative products and services will do that.
That appears to be HP's biggest problem. HP has been left behind in the mobile revolution. Hurd bought smartphone maker Palm in 2010 but Apotheker shut the business down. Consumers love their iPads and iPhones from Apple (AAPL), and HP is suffering as a result.
And while it's possible that Microsoft's upcoming tablet-friendly Windows 8 operating system will lead to a resurgence in PC sales, that's not certain. It also doesn't help that Microsoft is now going to compete directly with its hardware partners by offering its own Surface tablet.
It's worth noting that the one HP rival I have yet to mention is Dell (DELL). It is the only major HP competitor whose stock is also down this year. Shares have fallen about 20%. Dell, like HP, is still tied too closely to the moribund PC business. They are peas in a pod. Unfortunately, the pods have been ravaged by insects.
Yet the more I look at HP -- and to a lesser extent, Dell -- the more I see a company that resembles telecoms Verizon (VZ) and AT&T (T). HP's growth is painfully slow, with analysts predicting a revenue increase of just 1% in fiscal 2013. And analysts are forecasting an annual earnings increase of only 3.4% a year, on average, for the next few years. So even trading at just 4 times fiscal 2013 earnings estimates, HP still may not be a bargain.
But HP, like Big Red and Ma Bell, does pay a handsome dividend. HP yields 2.7%, more than a percentage point higher than what you can get from holding a 10-year U.S. Treasury note.
That's nice, but it's not exactly a ringing endorsement. Unless Whitman's changes on the organization chart actually lead to a renewed spirit of innovation at a company that used to have the tag line of "Invent," then the best thing people will be able to say about HP is that it's a widows and orphans stock for the 21st century.