Discontent over Hewlett-Packard Co.’s strategic shift has left it cheaper than any technology company in the world, turning the largest computer maker into a potential takeover target.
Hewlett-Packard lost more than $10 billion in market value after announcing it will spin off its personal computer unit, buy Autonomy Corp. and scrap a five-month-old plan to put its mobile software on devices. The 20 percent plunge drove down the valuation of Palo Alto, California-based Hewlett-Packard to 5 times estimated profit, about 70 percent less than the average technology company, according to data compiled by Bloomberg.
Since Leo Apotheker became chief executive officer in November, Hewlett-Packard’s shareholders have lost out as the company fell five times as much as the competition and faced its first decline in profit in more than a decade. It may now lure buyers looking to break it up and acquire the pieces, according to Solaris Group LLC. The server unit would boost Oracle Corp.’s share fivefold and help it become the biggest maker of the hardware. Hewlett-Packard’s printer business, which is 70 percent more profitable than the company as a whole, may also attract private equity firms, Fiduciary Trust said.
“The value right now looks extremely attractive,” Michael Mullaney, who helps manage $9.5 billion at Fiduciary Trust in Boston, including Hewlett-Packard shares, said in a telephone interview. “For the right company, it probably would make sense for someone to come in and scoop it up. Someone could come and at least buy pieces of the firm.”
Hewlett-Packard “appears to be a company that’s a rudderless ship right now,” Mullaney said.
Bill Wohl, a spokesman for Hewlett-Packard, said the company doesn’t comment on rumors or speculation.
Hewlett-Packard is exiting the PC business nine years after the acquisition of Compaq Computer Corp. vaulted it to the top of the industry. It is also backtracking on a plan to put WebOS software it gained in last year’s purchase of Palm Inc. on all of Hewlett-Packard computers, including tablets and smartphones.
With the PC business, “we are spinning it out and that should free shareholder value,” Chairman Ray Lane said in a telephone interview. Lane said that he and Apotheker are spending the week talking to investors around the world who may want to hold Hewlett-Packard stock for the longer term.
The company also agreed last week to pay a 59 percent premium to Autonomy’s previous 20-day trading average to buy the Cambridge, England-based company in the fourth most-expensive enterprise software or services deal of more than $1 billion, according to data compiled by Bloomberg.
The purchase was Hewlett-Packard’s largest since the $13 billion acquisition of Electronic Data Systems Corp. in 2008 and Apotheker’s biggest since becoming CEO.
He said on March 14 in San Francisco that he planned a “disciplined” approach to acquisitions while shopping for targets in areas including so-called cloud computing, which lets users access software and data over the Internet, as well as security and data analysis. Apotheker, 57, unveiled last week’s overhaul as he cut sales forecasts for the third time.
The former SAP AG head is pushing to expand in cloud computing and challenge Oracle and International Business Machines Corp. in more profitable products aimed at companies as consumer demand wanes and Apple Inc. lures buyers to its iPad.
Hewlett-Packard’s per-share earnings will slip more than 1 percent in the year ending October 2012, the first decline since 2001, analysts’ estimates compiled by Bloomberg show.
Research In Motion
The company’s shares are now down 42 percent since Apotheker joined following Mark Hurd’s departure as CEO amid a scandal over a personal relationship with a company contractor. Hurd now is a co-president at Oracle. The Standard & Poor’s 500 Information Technology Index has fallen 8 percent over the same period, data compiled by Bloomberg show.
Hewlett-Packard trades at 5 times projected earnings, the cheapest of the more than 230 technology companies in the MSCI World indexes of developed and emerging markets, according to data compiled by Bloomberg. Waterloo, Ontario-based Research In Motion Ltd., which has lost 82 percent of its value as Apple’s iPhone and Google Inc.’s Android platform siphoned off BlackBerry customers, trades for 5.2 times.
Compared with reported earnings, Hewlett-Packard was valued at 5.3 times profit at the end of last week, the lowest since at least 1980, data compiled by Bloomberg show.
Hewlett-Packard is now so cheap that its competitors may consider it vulnerable to a takeover, according to Tim Ghriskey, Bedford Hills, New York-based chief investment officer at Solaris Group, which manages $2 billion.
Buying the company’s so called-enterprise assets, or products targeting businesses, “would be a huge benefit” to Oracle, according to Jason Maynard, a San Francisco-based analyst who covers both companies at Wells Fargo & Co.
Maynard said Hewlett-Packard’s server unit, which makes computers that companies use to store and access software programs over a network, could help Oracle, the world’s largest maker of database software, compete against IBM for business hardware, according to a report dated Aug. 22.
Hewlett-Packard, which tied with IBM last year as the world’s largest seller of servers, took the lead in the first quarter after gaining 31.5 percent, according to Framingham, Massachusetts-based researcher IDC.
Oracle had 6.5 percent in the first quarter, after selling 6.8 percent of the world’s servers last year, IDC said. Redwood City, California-based Oracle lagged behind IBM, which had 29.2 percent of the market in the first quarter, and Round Rock, Texas-based Dell Inc.’s 15.6 percent share.
“Everything is on the table,” Ghriskey said in a telephone interview. “I certainly wouldn’t be surprised at all if in certain board rooms that there was discussion going on about either approaching Hewlett for the entire company or approaching Hewlett for pieces of the company.”
Oracle and Armonk, New York-based IBM could acquire all or parts of Hewlett-Packard’s business, he said.
Deborah Hellinger, a spokeswoman at Oracle, declined to comment on whether it’s interested in Hewlett-Packard. Ed Barbini, a spokesman at IBM, said it doesn’t comment on rumors or speculation.
Hewlett-Packard’s printing business would also attract bidders, Fiduciary Trust’s Mullaney said. The unit earned about 17 cents in operating income per dollar of its $26.5 billion in sales in the past year, the highest margin among its main businesses, according to data compiled by Bloomberg.
The company itself had an operating margin about 10 percent of revenue in the past 12 months, the data show.
‘Diamond in the Haystack’
“The diamond in the haystack was always printing and imaging,” said Daniel Morgan, an Atlanta-based fund manager at Synovus Securities, which oversees about $4 billion, including Hewlett-Packard shares.
The company’s $50.7 billion market value limits possible buyers to those with the cash to make a “big asset purchase,” according to Argus Research’s James Kelleher. A potential acquirer may also wait for Hewlett-Packard to get cheaper as growing signs the U.S. economy may fall back into a recession threaten to send the S&P 500 into a bear market.
Oracle is unlikely to try to buy Hewlett-Packard ahead of a spinoff of the PC business and other divisions such as printers, which are of little interest to the software company, according to a person familiar with Oracle’s strategy, who wasn’t authorized to speak publicly for the company.
“The number of people that could pay at least $55 billion is extremely small,” Kelleher, an analyst at Argus in New York, said in a telephone interview. “Most people feel the value of all these assets is going to go down.”
Fiduciary Trust’s Mullaney says Hewlett-Packard, which has lost almost half its value since Hurd left a year ago, must consider all options to help shareholders recoup their money.
“You can pretty much take a look at the stock price, look at when Hurd exited, and then look at now,” he said. “It’s pretty straightforward. Something’s not working.”
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