The Safest Bet in the Tech Sector

Investors are always on the lookout for a competitive edge. The ability to peer slightly into the future is a key edge to exploit, be it company guidance for the next quarter or analyst projections over the next couple of years. But one company has gone a step further than most and has provided an earnings road map out to 2015 — where it projects an astounding $20 per share in earnings.

The first thing to note is the company sailed through the credit crisis. A look at its financial results proves it had minimal ill-effects from a housing bubble and credit crunch that sent a number of erstwhile well-respected firms down in flames. Its customer base was also hit, but it remained loyal.

The dot-com bubble was also only a slight inconvenience. The technology-laden Nasdaq market officially peaked in March of 2000, and it only took the firm three years for sales to return to 2000 levels and four years for profits to recover. The hit to operations was also somewhat muted, with sales falling a little more than -8% and profits dipping -15% at the peak of the pessimism in 2002. Meanwhile, many smaller players ceased to exist or were acquired from rivals on the cheap.

Downside protection is a very appealing quality for any company, but when that company is International Business Machines (NYSE: IBM), it’s downright comforting.

#-ad_banner-#IBM, affectionately referred to as Big Blue, is a titan in the technology industry. The company generated $96 billion in revenue last year and is about as diversified a technology company as can be found, spanning software, services, hardware and financing. Just over a third of sales stem from the United States; the rest are spread throughout Europe, Asia and the rest of the world.

Lately, management has deemphasized more cyclical hardware sales and focused on higher profit software and service revenue. Sales growth has been respectable during the past five years, rising +5% on average. Cost controls and a push into higher-margin businesses has resulted in operating leverage, which is evident in a forward march in net profits that have steadily increased from 9% in 2004 to close to 15% in 2009.

Sales should reach $104 billion this year, while earnings should exceed $11 per share — both would represent all-time records. IBM’s growth strategy is pretty straightforward: the company simply wants to help firms utilize information technology to more efficiently and competitively manage their operations. By doing this, the company believes it can continue to gain market share and increase margins over time.

IBM’s 100-year history of providing impressive, consistent returns has given analysts and management the ability to provide impressive visibility. IBM has provided a road map for the next five years in which it plans to focus on business analytics, services and other higher growth market segments such as cloud computing and energy efficiency.

The company anticipates hardware will represent half of total company profits by 2015, with services accounting for most of the rest. Geographically, the company also expects 25% of sales to stem from faster-growing overseas markets. All of this boils down to an expectation of earnings of at least $20 per share by 2015.

Action to Take –> Based on IBM’s recent share price, the stock is trading for a trailing P/E of about 12. Applying this to the 2015 bottom-line expectations implies a share price of $240 per share, or nearly double the current stock price ($20 est. EPS x a P/E of 12 = $240). Averaged out and combined with IBM’s modest current dividend yield of 2%, this represents a total annual shareholder return of about +20% per year.

Nothing is certain in life, but given this stunning level of forward guidance, IBM is one of the most visible, sure-thing investment opportunities out there.