Year After Year, IBM and CEO Rometty Disappoint

Quarter after quarter, year after year, the International Business Machines Corp. (NYSE: IBM) turnaround is promoted by the company and CEO Virginia Marie “Ginni” Rometty. Occasionally, revenue and income show the most modest of progress, and then IBM takes a step back again. This is the story of the company’s first quarter.

IBM’s numbers helped squander a strong stock market performance in 2019. It was the second-best performing Dow Jones industrial average stock until yesterday, up 27.7% to $145.14. The Dow was up 13.4% over the same period to 26,452.66. Tech superstar Apple was up 26.3% to $199.21. It would have been hard to find anyone last year who would have forecast this kind of surge in IBM.

IBM’s improved stock price was based on the belief that its cloud computing and artificial intelligence businesses would offset and then run ahead of the lackluster performance of its legacy hardware, software and consulting businesses. IBM has proposed time after time that it could compete with market leaders Amazon and Microsoft. Rometty pressed the case at conferences, in media interviews and via a drumbeat of press releases about how well the company has done in these sectors.

Rometty has had plenty of time. She has been chief executive since January 2012. Much of her support has come from the board of directors, many of whom joined before she was elevated. Those board members have stuck with her far too long, in the minds of many investors who have grasped for financial improvement.

Rometty’s comments are nearly the same every quarter when IBM releases its earnings:

In the first quarter, our cloud revenue growth accelerated, and we again grew in key, high-value areas in Cloud and Cognitive Software and in consulting. IBM’s investments in innovative technologies coupled with our industry expertise and our commitment to trust and security position us well to help clients move to chapter two of their digital reinvention.

This statement could not mask the drop in revenue that has become an IBM hallmark. The revenue declined from $19.1 billion in the first quarter of last year to $18.2 billion. Earnings fell from $1.82 per share to $1.79.

Most notably, the division of the company that management said would thrive did not. Cloud & Cognitive Software revenue was $5 billion, down 2%. This includes the businesses critical to IBM’s turnaround: cloud and data platforms, cognitive applications and transaction processing platforms. Many investors expected IBM to lift its earnings forecast for the year. It did not.

IBM’s earnings results show that it has returned to its pre-turnaround days. Investors have waited for years, but it appears that wait could be years longer.

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