There is an old market saw about how the leaders from one bull market are not the leaders in the next bull market.
That’s true for a number of tech stocks: Dell, EMC, Cisco, Sun — and its especially true about Microsoft:
I have never been a big fan of the Mister Softee. From a tech standpoint, their products are kludgy and unimpressive; Their strong suit is not Innovation — it is relentless, incremental improvement, eventually leading to a decent if underwhelming product. What they end up producing are the lowest common denominator bloatware that can be easily managed by a corporate IT staff.
It is a great cash flow machine. Its the monopoloy, stupid.
From an investment perspective, there are 2 key issues to observe: first, they are a mature company whose fast growth days are well behind them. They are too big to be responsive, too expensive to be a value stock, too slow growing to be a growth stock. In short, they are in the process of morphing from the software PC leadership company to nice, quiet, money machine. I would expect a good entry purchase (i.e., from lower levels) could throw off gains of 10-15% a year, including dividend.
The second thing to observe — and all too many investors overlook this — is that the money is in the monopoly products. Except for Windows and Office, pretty much everything else is 3rd rate money-loser, with SQL as the exception. They have a few products that have slowly began to move up the scale, and their hardware products aren’t bad, but note where the lion’s share of their revenue, and nearly all of their profits come from: the Monopoly.
They continue to lose market share to Google in search (Don’t believe the vaporware hype); Their blogging product is a 4th rate ghetto; MSN continues to lag, losing share and money; X-box is a multi-billion dollar loser (no one else would have/could have thrown so much cash at merely hurting Sony); They keep pushing back Vista — thats a function of how sprawlingly large and apparently disorganized they have become as an institution; Oh, and I am still awaiting their iPod killer, first mentioned by them about 30 months ago.
I remember the days when the mere mention of Microsoft moving into a product area would disrupt the competition, force delays in other company’s purchases, and crush competitor’s stock prices. The vapor announcements have lost their punch; that strategy is no more.
Outside of the monopolies of Windows and Office, there is SQL Server database software — which has been garnering more share — and not a whole lot more. Lest you think I exaggerate, go read their quarterly statement.
While I have no faith that management can aggressively boost future sales outside of their monopoly products, it almost doesn’t matter. If you buy it now, your biggest risk may be death by boredom. This will eventually become cheap enough to buy where it will be reliable if boring old money machine; I just don’t think we are there yet . . .
Update: April 28, 2006 9:33am
I wrote this up yesterday while awaiting Microsoft’s earnings; MSFT opened down 11% to make a new low $23.60; I would be a buyer in the high teens/low 20s (technically, $22- $22.50) — so we are not quite there yet . . .
Also, see David Pogue’s NYT column on the new Internet Explorer, who notes that the product hasn’t been upgraded in over 5 years!
Update 2: May 5, 2006 12:38pm
John Dvorak discusses 8 signs that the software giant is dead in the water in The Microsoft malaise
Update: April 28, 2006 11:38am
Cramer joins the Microsoft skeptics . . .
Microsoft 5 year chart