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IBM: still failing after all these years

IBM is betting its future on growth in new businesses that it calls "strategic imperatives", but the 5 percent revenue growth in its latest quarter came from the 10 percent decline in the value of the US dollar

IBM businessman

The slow-motion horror show that is IBM under CEO Ginni Rometti continued with this month's quarterly financial results. The good news was that revenues grew for the second quarter in a row after five years of decline.

The bad news was that revenues only grew by 5 percent to $19.1 billion thanks to "currency tailwinds" - the 10 percent depreciation of the trade-weighted US dollar over the past year. In IBM's own words, revenues were "flat adjusting for currency".

Let's look at how other companies did in the same quarter. Microsoft increased revenues by 16 percent to $26.8 billion and profits by 35 percent to $7.4bn. Google (Alphabet) increased revenues by 26 percent to $31.1 billion and operating income grew by 6.6 percent to $7bn. Amazon increased revenues by 43 percent to $51bn while profits more than doubled to $1.6bn. Facebook increased revenues by 50 percent to $11.8bn and profits by 63 percent to $5bn.

IBM used to be America's leading company and one of the world's most powerful corporations. Its annual revenues peaked at £107bn as recently as 2011. But it has already been overtaken by Amazon, Apple, Google and Microsoft, and at current growth rates, even Facebook will surpass IBM. In fact, Facebook made more money than IBM - $5bn vs $2.3bn - in the latest quarter.

By now, we are all familiar with IBM's strategy to shift sales from traditional low-margin businesses to what it calls "strategic imperatives", such as cloud services, AI, security, blockchain and quantum computing. However, this is not a separate division, and IBM does not break out the numbers. It claimed that SI revenues were up by 15 percent, or by 10 percent at constant currency. That isn't impressive in a booming market.

In the conference call about the results, IBM's chief financial officer Jim Kavanaugh said: "Our cloud revenue is now $17.7 billion over the last year, which is up 22 percent."

Two points. First, as I've pointed out before, IBM counts a proportion of mainframe sales as "cloud sales," and mainframe sales grew by 71 percent and 54 percent in the past two quarters. Next year's cloud figures are unlikely to get a similar boost from mainframes, and a cycle implies a decline.

IBM's mainframe and storage revenues are quite small, nowadays, but when growth is marginal, they make a difference.

Second, Amazon and Microsoft appear to be enjoying much better growth in their cloud businesses, and I expect Google is, too. Amazon Web Services (AWS) increased its quarterly revenues by 49 percent to $5.4 billion, which is impressive for an established supplier.

Microsoft does not put all its cloud businesses in one pot, which makes comparisons difficult. However, in the earnings call with analysts, CEO Satya Nadella claimed that Azure revenues grew by 93 percent in the quarter. Amy Hood, the CFO, added that "Office 365 commercial revenue grew 42 percent and 40 percent in constant currency". Dynamics 365 grew by 65 percent and LinkedIn by 37 percent. Either way, Hood said that "commercial cloud revenue was $6 billion, increasing 58 percent and 55 percent in constant currency".

The current trend in corporate IT is to move to the cloud. It's a massive opportunity that did not exist 10 years ago, and will not exist in 10 years' time. If IBM's cloud revenues are growing slower than the market, it's losing a lot of long-term business.

The stockmarket also took a dim view of IBM's quarterly results and drove the share price down from $160.91 on April 17 to $145.86 on April 20, though it has since recovered slightly to $146.48. The all-time high was $209.36 in May 2013.

It's still too soon to say that IBM has turned the corner, but customers will hope it has bottomed out....