– The author is a Reuters Breakingviews columnist. The opinions expressed are his own –
By Robert Cyran
NEW YORK (Reuters Breakingviews) – Larry Ellison’s anti-HP ranting has turned weirdly sloppy. Oracle’s billionaire chief executive and founder is known for his acerbic, and very often witty, tongue. Yet his latest late-night missive — daring Hewlett-Packard’s new chief executive Leo Apotheker to show up in court — looks more messy than sharply penned. Perhaps the prospect of tougher competition with HP is getting under Ellison’s skin after all.
California’s weed revenue may go up in smoke. Voters in the indebted American state will decide next week whether to legalize possession of small amounts of marijuana, allow citizens to grow their own and give local authorities control over whether and how the drug would be sold commercially. Big bucks are at stake too.
State authorities reckon they could harvest up to $1.4 billion in sales and excise taxes on the back of Proposition 19. Stoners and bondholders are stoked on the idea. But even if it passes, the whole idea looks half-baked.
Netflix has rung the death knell for the lowly DVD. Disks haven’t disappeared yet. But the U.S. video rental service says that most of its customers will watch more streamed content than they will from mailed disks in the fourth quarter. Though the DVD is dying swiftly, Netflix has survived this tricky switch from analog to digital and is thriving. Now it needs to see off a whole new slew of well-financed rivals.
Netflix will no longer report the percentage of customers who watch content online. Two-thirds of Netflix customers streamed something in the quarter, up from 41 percent a year earlier. This growth reflects the increased selection of available content; the introduction of a monthly plan that prices unlimited streaming cheaper than basic cable; and the fact that more people have hooked their TVs up to the Internet.
Yahoo chief executive Carol Bartz’s grip is slipping. With few signs that her plan to return its core Internet business to relevancy is working, investors are restless. They’ve become increasingly focused on the company’s valuable Asian holdings, which Bartz has failed to monetize — or even make a persuasive case for keeping. A big value gap and growing impatience mean outsiders may do the job for her.
It was clear when Bartz joined Yahoo in January 2009 that she needed to address the company’s Asian assets, in which the company has little or no control. It was also clear that Yahoo’s Internet business was in danger of becoming an also-ran. Nearly two years down the road, Bartz has yet to answer these challenges. That’s why AOL and private equity firms may be sniffing around its purple-chaired headquarters.
The iPad’s destructive reach seems to be extending further and faster. Apple’s tablet is taking off at a breakneck rate. Analysts now predict up to 40 million will be sold in 2011. With personal incomes and spending stagnant, it’s looking like a zero-sum game in consumer electronics. Forget PCs and netbooks. The iPad will eat into camera and GPS device sales too.
How well the touch-screen gadget is really doing will become clear later this month when Apple reports its next set of quarterly results. But there are growing signs the company is selling way more of them than anyone outside Apple, or maybe even among Steve Jobs’ inner circle, had been anticipating. It’s clear the mini notebook computer market is being throttled. Netbook unit sales had been growing at more than 30 percent annually before the iPad was unleashed. Sales are now shrinking, according to market research firm NPD Group.
Salesforce.com’s stock valuation is reaching the clouds. The customer services software company straddles the technology industry’s new holy trinity: social networking, cloud computing, and mobile services. But just as buzzwords can be overwrought, so can company valuations. Salesforce could be a case in point.
Software that helps companies find and keep customers may sound rather dull, but Salesforce’s Internet-based subscription service has several advantages. Customers can, for example, share servers so they don’t each have to buy and maintain machines. The model also potentially makes it possible for users to access the service anywhere while on the go.
Hewlett-Packard got it at least half-right in choosing its new leaders. The tech company’s decision to appoint ex-SAP boss Leo Apotheker as chief executive officer raises questions. He was forced out at SAP , and may have a tough time firing up HP’s troops. On the other hand, HP’s decision to split the chairman and CEO roles is solid.
Apotheker has a fitting background. He spent more than 20 years at SAP. So he understands the marketplace for enterprise software, which is a big and growing part of HP. His international background should also be useful in running a multinational business. Furthermore, his past presumably fires him up to take on old rivals such as Oracle – which hired his predecessor Mark Hurd – and new ones such as SAP itself.
Southwest Airlines’ $1.4 billion AirTran Holdings deal pays for itself.
The dominant discount airline’s takeover gives it valuable gates in Atlanta and several Northeast cities. While AirTran poses operational risk and comes at a 69 percent premium, the value of promised cost cuts is worth about $2.8 billion before accounting for the time value of money. Even if some savings disappear, the deal stacks up. Indeed, investors sent Southwest’s shares soaring 10 percent on the news, adding almost $1 billion to the company’s market capitalization.
For years, Southwest grew by basically repeating the same play. Offer basic service to second-tier airports at U.S. cities at discounted prices. Minimize ticketing costs. Put passengers at ease by having bubbly flight attendants make lots of jokes. Save money by flying only Boeing 737s. And try to keep planes full by sticking to short routes.
Even Microsoft now yields more than Uncle Sam. Not long ago, tech investors didn’t expect, or want, payouts. Now, Microsoft is raising its yield to a tidy 2.6 percent, more than 10-year Treasuries, and Cisco is paying its first dividend. With growth slowing, shareholders need better rewards for the industry’s risks.
Cash can more easily be hoarded when big opportunities for more sales exist. Amazon’s return on invested capital, for example, has averaged around 50 percent a year over the past several years. So it makes sense to plow money into the business.
Yahoo’s resistance to selling its Asian business is futile. The Internet company lacks direction. Its stock now trades at half the spurned $31-a-share offer from Microsoft two years ago. Revenue has stagnated. It isn’t paying a dividend. And there’s friction with its partner in China. Yahoo would be worth more carved up and refocused.
For Yahoo, there’s Asia and everything else. Its 34 percent of Yahoo Japan is worth $7.1 billion at current market values. It also has a 40 percent chunk of Alibaba, a group that owns Taobao and Alipay, China’s high-growth answers to eBay and PayPal. It’s hard to pin down Alibaba’s value because most of its subsidiaries aren’t listed, but the mid-point of analysts’ estimates is about $7.5 billion. At nearly $15 billion, the Asian businesses are about equal to Yahoo’s enterprise value.