Hardware is becoming software, so investors are dumping hardware. At the same time, software is moving to the world of the cloud. These trends undeniably shape what tech stocks you should be buying.
What does this mean for companies in the business of making computer hardware? It means they need to find new paths to profit. And that also means software names are the best tech stocks to buy.
The biggest hardware makers are aware of this. The hope investors have for them is they can execute and return to prominence. Until they do, however, their growth and valuations will lag the market.
For now, keep an eye on these six tech stocks as they pivot to the software world:
- International Business Machines (NYSE:IBM)
- Dell Technologies (NYSE:DELL)
- Cisco Systems (NASDAQ:CSCO)
- Nokia (NYSE:NOK)
- Ericsson (NASDAQ:ERIC)
- Workhorse (NASDAQ:WKHS)
Tech Stocks: International Business Machines (IBM)
Former IBM CEO Virginia Rometty missed the cloud. Under her watch, IBM went from being the world’s unquestioned technology leader to a laggard. Facebook is now worth over six times more.
IBM has recognized its mistake. Rometty gave up the CEO chair in April to Arvind Krishna, who was running its cloud operations. He named Jim Whitehurst from Red Hat, the leading open source company in the world, as president.
Since Krishna took over, however IBM stock has barely budged. Despite the cloud experience of its new leaders, IBM remains a hardware company. Its primary profit center remains its Z Series mainframes, and the proprietary software that runs on them. After delivering new versions in the second quarter, systems sales jumped 69%, year over year, to $1.9 billion, and profits rose 4.3%.
But that profit center has been milked dry. Getting rid of older workers just drained its talent pool, and put the government’s eyes on it.
It will take tricky financial engineering for IBM to find the cash flow needed to compete. It could sell the hardware units to private equity, spin out Red Hat, or spin its cloud operations into a REIT, as companies like Equinix (NASDAQ:EQIX) have done.
For now, IBM says it’s focusing on “hybrid cloud.” Here, enterprises retain their own data centers built to cloud standards, then arbitrage larger public clouds like those of Amazon (NASDAQ:AMZN), Alphabet (NASDAQ:GOOG, NASDAQ:GOOGL) and Microsoft (NASDAQ:MSFT). It’s also pushing its quantum computing efforts, although they won’t contribute to profit for years.
Dell Technologies (DELL)
Dell Technologies is even bigger than International Business Machines and even more undervalued.
The story starts in 2016, when Dell bought EMC, which controlled VMware (NYSE:VMW), for $67 billion. Four years later, $45 billion of the debt remains on Dell’s books. That means the “enterprise value” of Dell, including its debt, is $95 billion. The same calculation, applied to IBM, leads to an enterprise value of $165 billion, on revenue of $77 billion.
VMware and IBM’s Red Hat are valuable because they offer virtualization and other cloud infrastructure software. It’s the kind of franchise the market often values at 10 times revenue. VMware had sales of about $11 billion for its fiscal 2020.
Here is the problem. Because of the funky corporate structure, it is hard to value Dell. What is it really worth without its massive stake in VMware?
The answer is to break Dell up again. Analysts think both companies would be worth more separate. Dell had fiscal 2020 net income of $4.6 billion. VMware could be worth $15-$20 per share more, nearly $10 billion. VMware CEO Pat Gelsinger says VMware could tie up with more hardware vendors if it were independent.
Selling VMware would also bring Dell enough cash to retire its debt and compete more closely against Hewlett Packard Enterprise (NYSE:HPE). HPE is currently killing it in “hyperconverged” hardware, a key data center market, and now matches it in server market share.
A spinoff is planned, with Dell and hedge fund partner Silver Lake maintaining a majority stake. The big issue? The move will not raise cash to pay down debt. Moreover, the split wouldn’t happen until September 2021.
Even so, analysts call this a big win that will unlock Dell’s value in hardware, where many of its products are considered leaders. Take it all together, and a patient investor should do well buying Dell here. But you’re buying financial engineering, not the real kind.
Tech Stocks: Cisco (CSCO)
Cisco Systems has been adrift ever since Chuck Robbins became CEO in 2015
Robbins’ strategy has been to shift Cisco’s revenue from expensive networking gear to software subscriptions. It’s not working. The revenue today is the same as it was in 2016. Profits have been uneven. Still, the stock’s low price has analysts pounding the table for it, calling it cheap and undervalued.
But that’s not how tech stocks work. When a company stops growing, it starts dying. A small cut tells the sharks to feed.
Cisco has made a half-dozen security acquisitions since Robbins took over, and 11 acquisitions since the start of 2019. But it’s not solving the problem. The number of bugs hitting Cisco software is increasing. Some impact key products like its high-end switches.
BabbleLabs is one of these recent deals, bought to improve its videoconferencing experience. But that only serves to underline Cisco’s weakness. Cisco practically invented videoconferencing. But when the pandemic hit, Zoom Video (NASDAQ:ZM) became a verb. Cisco is now worth only 15% more than Zoom, which came public in April 2019 and covers just one of Cisco’s product niches.
Competitors can smell blood in the water. Hewlett Packard Enterprise finished its acquisition of Silver Peak, a software-defined networking company that will be part of its Aruba unit. The move accelerates the shift of networking from a product to a service. It increases the pressure on Cisco.
The move of hardware to software, and of software becoming open source, has also hit the telecom equipment market hard.
Nokia lost its niche in cell phones, bought into the equipment market, and is now seeing its lead there threatened.
Part of the threat comes from China’s Huawei, which can make equipment for less and has been making inroads into the carrier market as a result. Nokia’s response is to support OpenRAN, a common set of interfaces for Radio Access Networks.
Nokia has been using OpenRAN support mainly to compete with Huawei and its Scandinavian rival, Ericsson. It says a complete set of OpenRAN interfaces will be available next year.
The hope now is that small, OpenRAN companies can be bought out, or parts of the emerging standards held back. That would let Nokia limit competition while still claiming openness. A short price war, initiated by the larger vendors, could quickly finish off the OpenRAN folks, analysts believe.
But there’s another threat.
Microsoft has already bought Affirmed Networks and Metaswitch, making its bid for an OpenRAN company look likely. Facebook is backing the Telecom Infra Project, the consortium that created OpenRAN. Open source, in other words, is coming.
Will Nokia be able to main relevance among tech stocks?
Tech Stocks: Ericsson (ERIC)
Ericsson is copying the strategy of Qualcomm (NASDAQ:QCOM), which has patents, copyrights and trademarks for all modem buyers to take its licenses. Importantly, these licenses come at a cost that makes rivals uncompetitive. But Qualcomm fought a bitter five-year legal war on three continents to achieve its dominance. Ericsson lacks that time, and it lacks that money.
Ericsson insists that OpenRAN has security issues. It has already made its own equipment fully compliant with existing security and encryption standards. It has introduced an integrated packet core firewall to boost security further. This also increases its proprietary advantage.
What might settle the dispute between open source and proprietary would be for Ericsson to buy Nokia.
Rumors of such a deal were floated in February. President Donald Trump has been pushing for more control over the 5G equipment market, even suggesting Cisco Systems should buy one of the two Scandinavian companies.
All this is leading to a new technology, Cloud RAN. This idea should dominate the new market for managed services, which is growing rapidly. What is this? The idea is to run radio networks according to what are called “cloud principles.” Ericsson is already pushing its own proprietary framework for this “journey.”
Tesla (NASDAQ:TSLA) became the most valuable car company in the world by proving that cars represent technology, not manufacturing.
This has spurred interest in other electric car companies like Workhorse.
Since late June, WKHS stock has skyrocketed. Why? The reason is a U.S. Postal Service contract, which Workhorse has yet to win, for 140,000 electric mail trucks. Workhorse is one of three finalists. Its C1000 design features a light body with 1,000 cubic feet of storage, and a short range that recharges overnight.
There is more than hype involved here. Workhorse’s first vans have traveled 8.5 million miles. It’s been in this niche for a decade. The trouble is its batteries are not yet competitive with gasoline engines. At the present price of $300 per kilowatt hour, a battery-powered van costs $30,000 to make.
If Workhorse wins the postal contract, and if other last-mile companies follow suit, WKHS stock will be a big winner.
But that’s a lot of ifs. This makes Workhorse less an investment than a speculation. Don’t bet any money on this stock you can’t afford to lose.
There’s reason to speculate. It’s probable that, over the next decade, electric vehicles will take over the market. It’s likely that, in last-mile delivery, with a limited number of players, this can happen quickly. Contracts offered at scale are always valuable, and often profitable.
But there is a lot of wishful thinking going on here. If the niche Workhorse is focused on proves out, why won’t Tesla just take it?
At the time of publication, Dana Blankenhorn held long positions in AMZN, NVDA and MSFT.
Dana Blankenhorn has been a financial and technology journalist since 1978. His latest book is Technology’s Big Bang: Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow with Moore’s Law, essays on technology available at the Amazon Kindle store. Follow him on Twitter at @danablankenhorn.