Hewlett-Packard Revisited: Lowest Tech Valuation in 20 Years

You can bet that there will be a Harvard Business School case study written about the last year in the board room at PC hardware giant Hewlett-Packard (HPQ). A little over a year ago I wrote that I thought the stock was pretty cheap after falling to $38 from a high of $55 per share. Mark Hurd, a cost-cutting guru praised by investors, had just been fired as CEO and the company later filled that position with Leo Apothekar, the former CEO of software-focused SAP, a job he held for about seven months before being ousted. At the time Wall Street was reeling from Hurd’s exit and given that H-P is the largest hardware company in the world, most everyone wondered why the Board hired Apothekar of all people. At $38 each, the stock fetched only 8.4 times earnings per share of $4.50, about as low as large tech company valuations ever get. Sure, Apothekar was unproven and hardly an inspiring hire, but unless the company’s business really was about to fall off a cliff, there appeared to be minimal downside risk given the single-digit multiple. Or so it seemed.

Here we are a year later and the H-P story has been downright bizarre. Apothekar was fired last night and replaced by former eBay CEO Meg Whitman. If you thought hiring Apothekar, a software guy, was an odd choice for the world’s leading hardware company, Whitman’s career experiences at eBay, Hasbro, Proctor and Gamble, Disney, Stride Rite, and FTD.com is certainly questionable. Not surprisingly, H-P stock fetches $22 today, the lowest level since 2005 and less than five times earnings. According to an analyst that covers H-P who was on CNBC this morning, a large cap tech stock has not traded at that price in more than two decades.

From an investor’s perspective, the most interesting thing is that H-P’s business has not actually fallen apart, as the stock price would have you believe. Earnings per share for the current fiscal year will likely grow about 5% to $4.80, on flat revenue. So while large technology companies never usually trade for less than 7-8 times earnings, today Hewlett-Packard trades at 4.6 times earnings, which is simply unheard of. To me, that doesn’t make any sense unless H-P’s business crashes. And if that didn’t happen over the last year, I am not sure it is a wise bet that it will happen now. After all, Apothekar’s strategic decisions seem to be correct (focus on growing software and services, dump unprofitable tablet hardware that is bleeding hundreds of millions of dollars, etc), even when the leadership and communication to Wall Street and customers was unclear, inconsistent, and confusing.

So where do I stand on Hewlett-Packard stock now, with clients sitting on a loss over the last year? Given that the company remains a major player that is extremely profitable and trades at a valuation not seen in decades in the technology space, I am strongly considering doubling down here. There may not be many catalysts short term to get the stock higher, unless Whitman was to inject strong leadership and clear priorities quickly, but earnings would have to collapse from here to justify anything near a $22 stock price longer term. The selling pressure in recent months appears to be capitulation from investors who are fed up with the sheer incompetence of the prior board of directors, rather than significant weakness in the underlying businesses at H-P.

Assuming that management can’t get much worse going forward (seems reasonable), there is little reason to think H-P won’t fetch at least a 7-8 P/E in the intermediate term (a higher multiple is certainly possible — the stock fetched 10 times earnings under Hurd — but at this point conservative assumptions seem prudent). That would imply significant share price upside even without earnings growth (though I do think EPS growth is coming — it will be +5% this year even after all that has happened). There are just too many ways to get a higher stock price from here, even without making optimistic assumptions.

In summary, the last year has been brutal for the company and its stockholders, but at its current valuation, the stock price just doesn’t make much sense, based on what we know today.

Full Disclosure: Long shares of Hewlett-Packard at the time of writing, but positions may change at any time