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Life after Carly
Stock Spotlight: Is Hewlett-Packard finally a buy or should investors continue to avoid it?
February 11, 2005: 4:05 PM EST
By Paul R. La Monica, CNN/Money senior writer
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NEW YORK (CNN/Money) - Love her or hate her, she's gone.

And now that Dow component Hewlett-Packard (Research) is preparing to move on without Carly Fiorina, investors have to be wondering if the stock is worth buying.

HP's stock has lagged many of its tech rivals since the company announced a merger in 2001 with computer maker Compaq. Fiorina was the main proponent of this purchase and many say that poor execution of the deal is the main reason for the stock's malaise.

In the past few years, HP has struggled to generate profits in its personal computer business and has also had difficulty making money in the lucrative area of so-called enterprise systems, selling servers, storage and software to large corporations. The knock on HP was that it couldn't effectively compete with Dell (Research) in PCs or with IBM (Research) in enterprise.

But there's optimism is on the rise now that Fiorina has been ousted. Wall Street is hoping that, at the very least, a new CEO will be able to turnaround the underperforming units. There's also increasing speculation that a new CEO would seek to break-up the company.

In addition, HP reassured Wall Street that it would hit Wall Street's targets when it reports its fiscal first quarter results on Wednesday. Analysts expect sales to increase 7 percent to $20.9 billion and for earnings per share, excluding special items, to rise 6 percent to 37 cents a share.

Still, HP's stock has already gained 6 percent in the days following the Fiorina decision. Will the euphoria be fleeting or is this only the beginning of brighter days ahead for the company?

A matter of trust

HP's biggest problem under Fiorina wasn't really a lack of growth. Revenues increased by 9.4 percent in fiscal 2004 and net income was up 37 percent, thanks largely to cost-cutting efforts associated with the Compaq merger.

And in this fiscal year, analysts are predicting a 6.2 percent gain in sales and 13 percent increase in earnings per share. That pales in comparison to the numbers expected to be put up by industry powerhouse Dell -- but it's still respectable.

What really did Fiorina in was a lack of consistency. Just look, for example, at what happened in the company's two most recent quarters. In August, HP reported earnings that were a whopping seven cents below estimates. But the company followed that up in November with earnings that were four cents ahead of consensus projections.

Investors crave predictability. But throughout Fiorina's tenure, promises made about how profitable certain businesses, such as the struggling PC division and enterprise unit, were broken. So one of the first challenges the new HP CEO will face will be regaining credibility on Wall Street.

Good numbers lost in bad press

It's not all doom and gloom for HP. The printing business is still a cash cow. And printing is the one area that even HP critics would have to admit is a true source of innovation for the company.

Yes, analysts are concerned about increased competition from Dell. But HP's operating margins in printing are still ahead of top U.S. rival Lexmark's and are slightly higher than that of top Japanese printing firm Canon (Research) as well.

Lexmark (Research) is valued at about 14.6 times operating profits for 2004. If you put a similar multiple on HP's printing division, it would be worth $56.2 billion, or about $18.60 a share. Yet, the current stock price for all of HP is about $21.30. So Wall Street is valuing the rest of HP's business at less than $3 a share.

That seems a bit low considering that HP has done an admirable job of bulking up in tech consulting services, a more stable and profitable business than selling hardware. IBM has transformed itself into a services colossus in recent years and has received a lot of favorable press for doing so. Yet, HP's profit margins from its services business are almost identical to Big Blue's and HP gets little credit for that.

Can't spell "cheap" without HP

HP still has plenty of problems. Like IBM, it might make sense to concede defeat in the low-margin PC business and sell that division. The new CEO will also need to find a way to generate more profits from selling servers, storage and software.

But this appears to be priced into the stock. Even after the recent rally, the stock trades at just 13.9 times calendar 2005 earnings estimates.

To put in perspective how cheap that is, HP is trading at a discount to these truly dowdy Dow brethren that are all expected to post lower earnings growth rates than HP this year: McDonalds (Research), Coca-Cola (Research), 3M (Research), United Technologies (Research) and SBC Communications (Research).

What's more, HP pays a dividend that yields a healthy 1.5 percent. That's very high for a tech firm and is just a hair below the average yield of 1.6 percent for the S&P 500

Of course, investors are going to have to be patient. The stock's performance is likely to be volatile as the CEO search progresses. But HP is a bargain and the fact that Fiorina is no longer at the company may finally give more traditional value investors a reason to purchase the stock.  Top of page


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