Arik Hesseldahl

Recent Posts by Arik Hesseldahl

HP’s Look Ahead to 2012 Must Be Not Too Hot, Not Too Cold, but “Just Right”

Hewlett-Packard will today report results for its fourth fiscal quarter and its 2011 fiscal year. It will be the company’s first earnings announcement under its new CEO Meg Whitman, who stepped in as CEO two months ago.

It will also be the first earnings release since the infamous fiasco of Aug. 18, when HP shocked investors with a truckload of news: The shutdown of the webOS hardware business, the now-concluded review of strategic options for the PC business, the acquisition of the British software firm Autonomy and a lowering of its revenue outlook.

The consensus of Wall Street analysts calls for HP to report sales of $32.1 billion and per-share profits of $1.16. At that level, sales growth would amount to about 3 to 4 percent on a sequential basis. Which, writes analyst Toni Sacconaghi of Bernstein Research in a note to clients on Friday, is substantially slower than the 8 to 14 percent HP usually grows sales in its fourth quarter.

HP consistently beats the consensus number — 25 of the last 26 quarters, by Sacconaghi’s count — so there’s a pretty good chance the company will do it again, despite an aggressive pricing environment for PCs, economic weaknesses in Europe and headwinds from the effect of currencies. When HP issued profit guidance in August for this quarter — the range was $1.12 to $1.16 a share — it implied that operating margins would be down by about 0.3 percent to up by 0.1 percent. This would be, Sacconaghi writes, the worst quarter-on-quarter change in operating margin since HP acquired Compaq in 2002.

Yet the results for the quarter are almost of secondary concern. All eyes will be on guidance that HP gives for 2012. It must be realistic, but not too low; achievable, so not too high. Guidance that Goldilocks could love — just right. HP has been lowering its guidance all year, but that was under prior CEO Léo Apotheker. The right number for EPS guidance in 2012, Sacconaghi says, is at least $4.25 a share, though he’s estimating HP will finish 2012 at $4.80, which is a reduction from his previous estimate of $5.15.

Also, it should set some clear priorities for capital allocation, Sacconaghi writes. HP took a lot of heat for paying $11.7 billion for Autonomy. Whitman has yet to set the table strategically for HP: Does it need more “transformation”? Or is it a mature company with slow predictable growth targets that routinely gives cash back to shareholders in much the same way IBM does? In choosing the latter, Sacconaghi says, HP could grow sales by at least 2.5 percent a year and per-share profits by 9 to 10 percent a year for the next three to five years.

HP can expect to produce free cash flow next year, in the range of $8 billion to $10 billion. If it were to buy back $4 billion worth of stock, it would reduce the share count by about 7 percent, and thus goose its EPS accordingly. One important signal on this front is the addition of activist investor Ralph Whitworth to HP’s board. Whitworth is likely to advocate the return of cash to shareholders and lean against big acquisitions.

Finally, there are lots of challenges in HP’s individual business units, none of them insurmountable. The printer unit is still recovering from the effects of the earthquake in Japan. Certain high-demand models are running short, yet there’s a lot of lower-demand models in inventory. Sacconaghi expects sales in the unit to drop 6 percent. In services, HP has had some problems delivering profit growth. Expect some explanation around that in the commentary today. In the PC business, expect some explanation of the effects HP is seeing from the flooding in Thailand which is causing a worldwide shortage of hard drives. In the Business Critical Server business, which is where HP sells its high-margin Itanium-based servers, the impact from the ongoing brawl with Oracle is making it difficult to close deals, Sacconaghi writes.

Overall, he insists that HP — despite its troubles over the last year — remains an attractive investment for patient investors. It still leads the market segments it participates in, except services, and still has fair room for growth. Sacconaghi rates HP as “outperform,” and expects it to hit a price of $37.

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I think the NSA has a job to do and we need the NSA. But as (physicist) Robert Oppenheimer said, “When you see something that is technically sweet, you go ahead and do it and argue about what to do about it only after you’ve had your technical success. That is the way it was with the atomic bomb.”

— Phil Zimmerman, PGP inventor and Silent Circle co-founder, in an interview with Om Malik