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Keep an eye on Big Blue's red line

Investor Daily: IBM's financial loans to customers have made it the undisputed king of business software. But beware: The credit crisis has turned that strategy into risky business.

By Jon Fortt, senior writer
November 5, 2008: 8:02 AM ET

IBM executives say they're comfortable with the company's debt strategy.

SAN FRANCISCO (Fortune) -- Debt has always been a four-letter word, but has become an especially dirty one during this credit crunch. These days, folks with plenty of cash and no debt are cast as paragons of fiscal virtue, while those that ran up credit card bills are not.

But consumers aren't the only ones who relied on debt during the good times. Companies did, too. And now that the global economy is in turmoil, companies of all sizes are struggling to manage obligations that didn't seem to be a problem before.

Which brings us to technology bellwether IBM (IBM, Fortune 500) Should we be at all mindful of IBM's $34 billion in debt? (That's right, billion. With a B.)

The answer: Yes - but not for the reasons you might think. Most of the debt on IBM's books is money it lent to its customers to help them buy its products. While Big Blue looks well positioned to ride out a financial crisis, we should watch whether its customers are able to pay back money they borrowed. If they get into real trouble, it could drag on IBM's earnings and provide an early sign of a tech meltdown.

Normally we don't think of tech companies as borrowers. Microsoft (IBM, Fortune 500) and Apple (AAPL, Fortune 500) are typical - they're well known for generating lots of cash and not carrying any debt. IBM, however, has a different strategy for managing its books. It has long borrowed money to help customers buy its products, and it recently borrowed to buy its own stock as well.

How has the debt strategy worked for IBM? The results speak for themselves: Not only is IBM the undisputed king of business software and services, it has used its strength to build a cash generation machine that helps it buy smaller companies and easily pay its bills.

Lately, though, the financial crisis is exposing a couple of potential downsides to IBM's debt. First, a small but growing number of IBM's customers can't pay back their loans, which leaves IBM holding the bill and could cause a drag on the company's earnings. Second, borrowing money to buy back its own shares at last year's higher prices may have been a sensible move, but IBM will still have to repay the debt with today's harder-won profits.

Analysts still express confidence in the company. Louis Miscioscia, an analyst with Cowen and Company, recently called IBM stock "a great place to hide in this turbulent time."

IBM says it's comfortable with its debt strategy. Jesse Greene Jr., IBM's vice president of financial management, pointed out that the company has used its cash to buy back shares for more than ten years, and only borrowed money to do it last year to take advantage of a tax loophole. (Experts have pegged IBM's tax savings at $1.6 billion.) On the financing front, some customers who borrowed money to buy IBM products are unable to pay their bills, but that's to be expected in a recession, he said. "We just have to man and keep our provision for doubtful accounts at high levels," Greene said.

Take a closer look, and there is indeed some cause for concern. The bulk of IBM's debt - about $24.5 billion of it - is from its financing arm. This works a little like the store credit cards from Macy's (M, Fortune 500) or Banana Republic (GPS, Fortune 500), except instead of buying bedroom furniture or sweaters, businesses are buying servers and database software. IBM isn't alone in using financing to fuel its business; Hewlett-Packard's (HPQ, Fortune 500) financing arm has $9 billion in loans outstanding, for example, and Oracle (ORCLE) finances 15 percent of its sales. But IBM's in-house financing operation is probably the largest in the tech industry, and it's not yet clear how the company's customers will fare in a downturn.

"Maybe these newer customers in emerging markets might not be able to sustain the costs as well as IBM had thought, so that's a risk," says Tom Smith, equity analyst at Standard & Poor's.

There are signs of turbulence. In the quarter that ended September 30, when the financial crisis had barely begun, IBM set aside $128 million to cover debts that it expects its customers won't be able to pay. While that's pocket change for IBM, it's also more than the company has added to its debt reserve in the previous two years combined - and things could very well get tougher during the next few quarters.

IBM doesn't sound concerned; its financing customers are an especially creditworthy bunch, and most of them are in the U.S. and Europe. "The exposure to the emerging markets in the financing business is not as great as you might think," Greene said.

We'll just have to see whether the downturn gets bad enough to really hurt technology sales. If it does, one of the first places we'll see evidence is in IBM's credit statements.

Not sure how or where to invest with the markets down sharply and signs of a painful recession mounting? Let us know your investing question. We'll answer it in our next Investor Daily. E-mail Fortune.  To top of page

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