There’s a simple bull case for Nokia (NYSE:NOK) stock at the moment. 5G rollouts worldwide should drive demand growth for Nokia products. The company itself is projecting sharp earnings growth in 2020. And NOK stock is cheap, at 11.7x the midpoint of 2020 EPS guidance.
That said, there’s also a simple bear case for Nokia stock: we’ve been here before. NOK stock seemingly has been a turnaround play for most of this decade – and had similarly impressive near-term catalysts along the way.
None of those catalysts have reversed the trend. NOK stock is down 40% over the past five years, and has lost two-thirds of its value in the last decade. Maybe this time is different – but the history of the tech industry, too, suggests a difficult path to upside, even with a current valuation that looks rather cheap.
NOK Stock Has Been Here Before
As I detailed earlier this year, Nokia has had chances to drive growth — and reverse the narrative surrounding the stock. The $7 billion sale of the company’s phone business to Microsoft (NASDAQ:MSFT) turned out to be a brilliant deal. Microsoft wound up losing at least $8 billion, and finally exited at a sale price of just $350 million. Yet the huge cash infusion did little for NOK stock.
Indeed, Nokia used that cash to help bankroll its acquisition of Alcatel-Lucent, which was to make the company a networking giant. That thesis didn’t pan out. The company then re-entered the phone business. That plan hasn’t worked.
The story now is 5G. An admittedly strong second quarter earnings report contained positive news about customer retention in the shift from 4G. Nokia expects the full benefit to start hitting its P&L in 2020. And the staggered pace of the global rollout suggests that demand should continue for years to come.
That said, Nokia already has admitted that it will struggle to hit its 2019 EPS guidance. Wall Street, for what it’s worth, is betting against 2020 projections as well. Consensus of $0.40 is below the company’s range of €0.37-€0.42 ($0.41-$0.45). The story is attractive — but it’s been attractive before. For this entire decade, Nokia simply hasn’t been able to fulfill its potential.
Is Nokia Stock an Outlier in Tech?
To be fair, it’s not easy to execute a turnaround, particularly in tech. There are no shortage of companies who, like Nokia, have struggled to adapt.
There have been some winners. Microsoft itself is the most obvious one. It was only six years ago that Microsoft stock had traded sideways for a decade. Earnings growth had been minimal for years. Microsoft is now the most valuable company in the world.
But Microsoft is a software play. In hardware, products can become ‘commoditized’. And competition from China, in particular, is much stiffer. Indeed, Huawei has taken significant market share, with its political worries another potential tailwind for NOK stock.
And in hardware, turnarounds have been difficult. IBM (NYSE:IBM) touched a nine-year low late last year. Oracle (NYSE:ORCL) has returned 9% over the past two years while broad markets have risen sharply. Blackberry (NASDAQ:BB) has been a perpetual “next year” story as both a hardware play and, more recently, a software play. Post-split gains for Hewlett Packard Enterprise (NYSE:HPE) have stalled out. Nokia rival Ericsson (NASDAQ:ERIC) is down 37% over the past five years, a performance in line with that of Nokia stock.
There’s really only old-line large-cap hardware play that has driven consistent gains: Cisco Systems (NASDAQ:CSCO). And that company has scale and market dominance that Nokia simply doesn’t have.
To be sure, history alone doesn’t suggest that NOK stock can’t rally this time. There is an opportunity in 5G. The hit to Huawei’s reputation at least weakens a key competitor. And Nokia stock is cheap enough if guidance is hit.
But NOK also is a classic “this time is different” case. And as the old saw goes, those are the four most dangerous words in investing. That’s been true in the past for Nokia and many similar tech plays. It could be true this time as well.
As of this writing, Vince Martin has no positions in any securities mentioned.