Monday, October 29, 2007

The PE tech stock chasm

Tech has been back for a while now. Tech IPOs and M&A activity has been back at boom levels but contrary to the theory that a high tide rises all boats, it would seem that the improved attitude of Wall Street to the tech industry has benefited some more than others. Of course you would expect that given each company is different but there appears to be a chasm that some tech stocks can't cross in terms of the PE ratios. If you look at the major tech firms such as Microsoft, Oracle, IBM, HP, Intel and Cisco they all have PE ratios that go from 16 to 27. Indeed you can find a LOT of firms in the tech sector with this kind of rating. However, there is another large group that seems to have broken from the pack and have ratings a full twenty points higher, or more! Apple is at 47, Google at 53 and then there's Amazon at a staggering 104 and VM Ware at a head scratching 242. What differentiates these groups would appear to be a mixture of perceived management strength and of course growth potential. The markets clearly believe we will all buy another 'i something' from Apple, search like crazy for things on Google, do our holiday shopping on Amazon and get all our computers to all use VM Ware's virtualization technology (yes that last example doesn't sound terribly exciting I know). So why do they believe Apple and Google are a better bet than IBM and Cisco? Is it because they view the likes of IBM and Cisco as old school tech? I think there is some truth here and it's a challenge for these guys which is why if you look at most of the big tech firms with the lower ratings you will see they have all been reinventing their business models. IBM, Microsoft, Cisco and Intel all have huge investments in manufacturing and development efforts in places such as India and China. These investments help reduce their cost base which should improve their earnings. But these changes also allow them to look at how products get to market. If you make the kinds of changes these businesses have then you get the chance to rethink everything when it comes to the way you design and manufacturer your products. It is almost like starting again in some ways as you have masses of new brains getting involved. My hunch is that in the next few years you will see the fruits of these changes not just in the costs of the company but in innovation levels. Maybe by then the chasm will have narrowed and maybe the likes of Google will have jumped back across. In the meantime the big tech firms on the lower PEs do face a communications challenge as they try and show that the businesses they are running today bear no resemblance to the ones they ran just a few years ago (which is true) AND that this change is very good news indeed.