3 Reasons International Business Machines Corp. Stock Could Fall

Shares of IBM have fallen 13% over the past 12 months, woefully underperforming a 14% gain for theS&P 500. Revenue has declined for 11 consecutive quarters as it struggles to dump lower-margin businesses and transition to more profitable segments.

Source: Wikimedia Commons, Mark Ahsmann

Despite some glimmers of hope in cloud-related businesses, IBM could sink even further in 2015. Let's look at the top three reasons investors should beware of Big Blue.

1. Nonexistent growthThe main problem is a lack of top and bottom-line growth. Last quarter, revenue from continuing operations plunged 12% year-over-year as adjusted net income fell 11%. For the full year, revenue from continuing operations fell 6% to $92.8 billion with adjusted net income slipping 7% to $15.8 billion. Except for a meager gain in the global financing segment, IBM revenues were down across the board:

Source: IBM 2014 Annual Report

IBM attributed these declines to weak client spending, sluggish demand in the software sector, divestitures of several lower-margin businesses, and a strong dollar eating up its foreign revenue. Big middleware partnerships, such as those signed with Microsoftand Apple last year, might improve the situation, but IBM business services remain vulnerable to nimbler rivals such asAccenture.

2. IBM earnings gameAnother fundamental problem is the way IBM inflated its earnings over the past few years. In 2010, then-CEO Sam Palmisano promised to double annual earnings per share from $10.01 to $20 by2015. But to accomplish that, he accelerated stock buybacks and divested lower-margin businesses, a strategy that continued even after Ginni Rometty succeeded him in 2012.

Over the past 12 months, IBM bought back $12.97 billion in stock, exceeding its free cash flow of $12.69 billion during that period. Buying back stock reduces the number of outstanding shares and boosts earnings per share. Unfortunately, the money used for share repurchases could arguably have been allocated for acquisitions or other investments. To make matters worse, IBM funded these buybacks with debt, causing long-term debt to spike 43% over the past five years. Meanwhile, divesting lower-margin divisions temporarily boosted EPS as well but caused revenue growth to stall.

For 2015, Rometty backed away from the $20 promise with a more realistic projection of $15.75 to $16.50, which would represent only 1% to 6% year-over-year bottom line growth. However, Big Blue clearly has no plans to slow its buybacks or stop burning the furniture. It committed to a new $5 billion repurchase program last October, slashed 50,000 jobs in 2014, and could cut even more jobs in 2015.

3. All-in bet on the cloudIBM believes expanding its higher-margin cloud businesses will offset its continuing year-over-year revenue declines.

To her credit, Rometty took major steps forward in expanding the cloud business by acquiring cloud computing company, SoftLayer Technologies,for $2 billion, investing $1.2 billion in a new business unit for its AI platform Watson, and signing "hybrid" cloud deals with large companies includingLufthansa, ABN Amro, and WPP. Hybrid cloud installations, which integrate cloud-based solutions with older on-site technologies, are popular among larger companies that are not ready or willing to upload all of their data to the cloud. Gartnerbelieves half of all U.S. companies will use hybrid installations by 2017.

Those efforts have certainly paid off. In 2014, total cloud revenue rose 60% year-over-year to $7 billionwith cloud delivered as a service revenue rising 75% to $3 billion. Unfortunately, the cloud still represented a small slice of its $92.8 billion top line. This business is unlikely to grow fast enough to offset declines in services, software, and hardware.

The verdictContrarian investors might consider IBM to be a good, beaten up, blue chip stock that could recover over the next few years. However, the company needs to patch up some big holes in its hull before it can sail properly again.

With a forward P/E of 10, there is certainly a limit to how much deeper Big Blue can sink. Value-seeking income investors can consider picking up some shares for its 2.7% yield, but the stock is unlikely to bounce back anytime soon.

The article 3 Reasons International Business Machines Corp. Stock Could Fall originally appeared on Fool.com.

Leo Sun owns shares of Apple. The Motley Fool recommends Accenture, Apple, and Gartner. The Motley Fool owns shares of Apple and International Business Machines. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.

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