Actually, Ballmer and Chambers Haven’t Been Running Microsoft and Cisco Into the Ground

With Microsoft’s just announced $8.5 billion acquisition of Skype and recent troubles at long time tech darling Cisco, their respective CEOs are taking a lot of heat in the financial media lately. The assaults usually start by comparing stock price returns over the last decade or so, mainly because such data makes it easy to point the finger at the top brass. It is true that Microsoft stock is trading at the same price as it did way back in 1998 (don’t forget this excludes dividends, many reporters do) but that fact alone is not reason to conclude that the CEO has failed their shareholders.

The fact of the matter is that CEOs have control over certain things and no control over others. Their stock price’s starting valuation at a certain point in time is something they have no control over. Most of these 10-year stock price comparisons work to proof a point because the ten-year period just happens to begin near the peak of the internet and tech bubble of the late 1990’s, a time when most tech stocks fetched 50 or 100 times earnings. Not surprisingly, if you bought tech stocks at those valuations, you have a horrible investment on your hands, but that is true regardless of who was CEO.

So how can we fairly determine how well a CEO has done creating shareholder value? Earnings per share, plain and simple. Many CEO’s fail because they look at overall sales to determine how well they have done, but you can grow the size of your company without making shareholders a dime, so that is an irrelevent statistic for investors. Stock prices are based on two things; valuation multiples and earnings per share. Simply put, the market determines the former and the CEO plays a huge role in the latter.

So, how have Ballmer and Chambers done in the context of earnings per share growth over the last decade? Contrary to media reports, not that bad. I assembled the chart below which shows how fast earnings per share have grown at seven different large technology companies for the ten-year period from fiscal 2000 through fiscal 2010. The results may surprise you.

As you can see, Microsoft and Cisco have not been run into the ground by Ballmer and Chambers over the last decade. In fact, given that the long term average corporate earnings growth rate has been 6% annually, most of these tech companies have performed quite well.

Not surprisingly, Apple leads the way in terms of average annual earnings per share growth and Oracle, despite Larry Ellison’s huge pay packages over the years, has done very well too. Former internet stock analyst Henry Blodget over at Business Insider wrote this morning that John Chambers has failed as CEO at Cisco, largely basing his view on the stock’s performance, but the numbers don’t really support that. Again, a CEO really can’t influence P/E ratios that much. Opinions about a company’s future prospects are largely based on recent history, so if a CEO has done well in the past, the odds are good that their stock’s P/E will be above average, which ironically will hurt stock performance in the future.

While Microsoft is not near the top of the list above, Ballmer has kept pace with other rivals such as HP and IBM, so calling him a complete failure seems unfair. One could certainly argue that he could have done a lot better given the hand he was dealt, but the numbers still show he is about average in the tech world and above-average compared with all of corporate America.

The real surprise from this analysis is the clear loser of the group, Intel. The chip sector is definitely cyclical, more so than the hardware, software, and services industries which dominate this list, but Intel has unquestionably been the dud in the group, growing earnings at about half the historical rate of 6% for all U.S.corporations. If any management team should be criticized in large cap tech land, it should be the folks who have been running Intel.

All in all, a very interesting exercise.