Cisco (NASDAQ: CSCO) and Oracle (NYSE: ORCL) are both mature tech stocks, but the former rallied nearly 20% over the past 12 months as the latter stayed nearly flat. Though Cisco impressed investors with several quarters of accelerating growth, Oracle posted flat sales growth and relied heavily on buybacks to boost its earnings.
I compared these two stocks last July, and concluded that Cisco's steady growth and deployment of repatriated cash on buybacks, dividends, and acquisitions made it the better long-term buy. Cisco has outperformed Oracle by a wide margin since that article was published, but can it maintain that lead this year?
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Comparing Cisco and Oracle's businesses
Cisco is the world's largest maker of networking routers and switches. It also bundles security software and other enterprise applications with its hardware products.
Cisco generates most of its revenue from its infrastructure business, which sells routers, switches, and other wireless hardware. This unit generates slower growth, and faces competition from other major players like Huawei, Arista Networks, Hewlett Packard Enterprise, and Juniper Networks.
Most of Cisco's growth comes from its smaller applications and security businesses. These units, which Cisco often expands via acquisitions, usually generate double-digit sales growth to complement the single-digit growth of its infrastructure business. Bundling these software services with its hardware widens Cisco's moat against its competitors and allows it to cross-sell more services.
Oracle generates most of its revenue from on-premise database and business software products. These products generate very slow growth in a highly saturated market.
To revive its top-line growth, Oracle launched cloud-based services like the Fusion Cloud, which provides human capital management, customer relationship management, and enterprise management tools for large companies. Oracle's other growth engines include its Supply Chain and Manufacturing Cloud applications, as well as the cloud-based ERP (Enterprise Resource Planning) platform it gained from its acquisition of NetSuite in 2016.
Many of Oracle's higher-margin cloud services are generating double-digit sales growth, but most of those gains are offset by the declines in its lower-margin legacy businesses. Moreover, Oracle's decision to stop reporting its public cloud services revenue separately last year makes it difficult for investors to gauge the company's turnaround efforts.
Which company is growing faster?
Cisco's sales growth accelerated throughout most of the past year as bandwidth-hungry enterprise campus customers placed higher orders for more infrastructure products.
That growing enterprise footprint, along with its acquisitions of companies like Duo Security and Broadsoft, enabled Cisco's applications and security businesses to generate robust growth. Here's how Cisco's business fared over the past four quarters:
Cisco repatriated $67 billion in overseas cash last year, and it spent most of that cash on buybacks, dividends, and acquisitions. It's sitting on $10 billion in cash, so it still has plenty of room to tighten up its valuation, reward income investors, and expand its higher-margin software portfolio. Analysts expect Cisco's revenue and earnings to rise 5% and 18%, respectively, this year -- which are robust growth rates for a stock that trades at 16 times forward earnings.
Oracle generates much slower growth than Cisco for two reasons. First, demand for its on-premise database software and hardware is sluggish. Second, the growth of its cloud services is decelerating, possibly due to tougher competition from Microsoft and Amazon, which are both expanding into the cloud-based database market.
Instead of deploying more cash on acquisitions or research and development to strengthen its cloud businesses, Oracle spent most of its cash on buybacks over the past year, which helped it squeeze out a streak of earnings beats with nearly flat sales growth:
Analysts expect Oracle's revenue to dip 1% this year as its earnings rise 9%, which is significantly lower than its forward P/E of 14. Oracle can keep treading water by repurchasing its shares, but its revenue growth will remain under pressure unless it makes some bold divestments or acquisitions.
The clear winner: Cisco
Cisco's well-balanced business, higher growth rates, and lower dependence on buybacks make it a better investment than Oracle. Cisco's stock is also cheaper relative to its earnings growth, and its forward yield of 2.7% is much higher than Oracle's 1.4% yield.
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John Mackey, CEO of Whole Foods Market, an Amazon subsidiary, is a member of The Motley Fool's board of directors. Teresa Kersten, an employee of LinkedIn, a Microsoft subsidiary, is a member of The Motley Fool's board of directors. Leo Sun owns shares of Amazon and Cisco Systems. The Motley Fool owns shares of and recommends Amazon and Arista Networks. The Motley Fool owns shares of Microsoft and Oracle. The Motley Fool is short shares of Hewlett Packard Enterprise Co. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.