Large cap technology stocks are cheap, really cheap. Some of them haven’t traded at current valuations ever in their history as publicly traded companies (Cisco, for example). Microsoft (MSFT) is often included on such a list, and for good reason (the stock is dirt cheap), but the company rarely gives investors confidence that their strategy is right in the ever-changing tech world. Very smart investors like David Einhorn have added Mister Softee to their portfolios but the stock continues to be dead money in the mid to high 20’s. Today’s announced deal to buy Internet calling giant Skype for $8.5 billion does little to change the landscape for the stock.
Microsoft’s biggest problem is that it really doesn’t innovate very much anymore. Using the massive cash generation from Windows and Office, the company has merely copied their competitors in other areas. Their online services division continues to bleed red ink as Bing, Live, and other initiatives are simply me-too product offerings. The Zune music player was a complete bust and there is little reason to think the Windows Phone operating system will get any traction. The X-Box gaming system has been the company’s lone success outside of its core products, but with only a couple of competitors, that was an easier market to make progress in. And with the consoles facing new competition, that market is only going to get more difficult.
If anything, this Skype acquisition is interesting in that it signals a potential shift in strategy. Rather than continuously trying to build a Skype-like product that stands little chance of gaining traction against Skype and Google Voice, Microsoft has decided to just buy one of the giants in the space. Although the price tag seems excessive at $8.5 billion (and very few would argue that point), they likely had to overpay to wrestle it away from other bidders. In my opinion, it makes more sense for Steve Ballmer to overpay for Skype than plow hundreds of millions of dollars into a Microsoft clone that will be dead on arrival. In fact, Microsoft investors should hope that the company stops sinking billions into its unprofitable internet services division and uses that cash to buy other well established companies. There will still be a risk that Microsoft will tinker with Skype and any other future acquisitions, which would increase the odds that they lose their leadership position, but there is far more money to be made with Skype than with Bing, as one example.
As for the stock, this Skype deal does little to change my view that Microsoft is near the bottom of the list in terms of attractive large cap technology companies. I don’t dispute the stock is very cheap, but capital allocation has not been a strong suit of the company in recent years (and that is putting it mildly), and as a result, investors should have little confidence that Microsoft is on a path to building up more large, profitable business units. And with the continued assault from Google and others on their Windows and Office monopolies, that is what Microsoft must do if they want to see their stock price get out of the doldrums.