Uncertainty Has Become the Norm When It Comes to Buying IBM Stock

Maddening, that may be the only way to describe International Business Machines (NYSE:IBM) to a would-be buyer of IBM stock. For every victory it creates for itself on one front, it seems to stumble on another. Fiscal progress is evident, but is unfurling so slowly it’s difficult to determine if Big Blue is doing better, if it’s just inflation at work or a bit of both.

Whatever the case, IBM is a work in progress that investors would be wise to treat as such.

A Quick Look at IBM Stock

Credit has to be given where it’s due. After three years of waning revenue, IBM finally turned the corner. For its last three quarters its logged actual sales growth, on a year-over-year basis. It’s been (very) modest growth, but growth nonetheless. Per-share earnings finally grew again last quarter too, even if just barely.

It’s not just what IBM did that matters though. In fact, how International Business Machines turned the ship around may well carry more weight in terms of how IBM stock performs going forward.

Its so-called Strategic Imperatives, products and services that address relatively new opportunities in social, mobile, analytics and cloud, finally make up more than half the organization’s revenue. These arenas are strategically imperative because they’re the only growth engines IBM has to address. Its legacy lines of business continue to shrink.

Analysts are calling for more earnings growth this year and next for IBM, supported by at least a little more revenue growth this year. Next year’s top line growth remains in question, though nobody’s looking for a dramatic revenue headwind.

IBM Downtrends

While IBM may have been an unlikely pioneer in some areas, those developments haven’t necessarily performed as originally suggested they could. In the meantime, competitors have come up with superior solutions.

The company’s artificial intelligence platform, Watson, comes to mind.

When first introduced to the world in 2011 by way of winning a TV game show, the world was blown away. Not only did the supercomputer appear to know everything, it could interact with others in conversational terms.

There was nothing else out there like it, and Watson has since been put to work as a tool that can scour data in search of a cure for cancer, pick stocks, complete tax returns and even serve companies as a predictive customer service tool.

Its actual value as tool for getting useful things done, however, is increasingly coming into question.

The Alexa-powered Echo from Amazon.com (NASDAQ:AMZN) is clearly the world’s most-popular AI digital assistant, yet the alternative from Alphabet (NASDAQ:GOOG, NASDAQ:GOOGL) is gaining traction too.

In the meantime, Microsoft (NASDAQ:MSFT) has developed an amazing, business-oriented artificial intelligence platform that solves clear problems and makes work easier.

Meanwhile, after years of data-crunching, Watson recently was criticized for recommending a course of cancer treatment that would was not only incorrect, but unsafe.

That’s not to suggest all of IBM’s new-era businesses are misfiring.

Its blockchain technologies, for instance, have actually demonstrated the true power of the idea rather than its use as the backbone of digital currencies like Bitcoin.

Given how much time and money IBM was willing to invest in Watson though, with relatively little to show for it in actual value as an AI tool, one has to wonder if International Business Machines isn’t entirely plugged into the pulse of the modern marketplace.

Tough Road Ahead for IBM Stock

In that same vein, if blame is to be placed anywhere for IBM’s failure to recognize the way the technology world was changing and then its slow overhaul that prioritized cloud computing and mobile, it has to be placed at CEO Ginni Rometty’s feet. She sets the tone, the pace, and priorities.

With that as the backdrop, calls for her termination haven’t exactly been uncommon. Edward Jones analyst Josh Olson commented following the release of the company’s first quarter results:

“You have to consider a change in leadership at the top at some point… She has had enough time to really put her signature on this and really put her strategy in place … But it’s slower than we would have hoped.”

That was one of the more polite expressions of the sentiment.

Whether or not she stays or goes may be largely irrelevant at this point. If she leaves, it’s disruptive even if the move turns out to be positive in the long run. If she stays, there’s no reason not to expect more of the same lackluster results, and there’s no reason not to expect IBM stock to remain bogged down by internal and external doubts about her direction.

Bottom Line for IBM Stock

Ironically, for all of its woes, you could still do worse than owning IBM stock. You could also do better though.

International Business Machines is a work in progress, but progress is being made. At the heart of most investors’ frustration is the slow pace at which it’s being made.

Those investors can’t help but wonder how things might be with a slightly more developed and purpose-minded product mix, a different marketing approach, or someone else at the helm.

These things cast just enough doubt on the company to make IBM tough to completely buy into, literally and figuratively.

There’s no doubt, though, that IBM stock has earned a spot on most investors’ watchlists, given what it could become with a few of the right tweaks.

If nothing else, the next few quarters are going to be fun to watch.

As of this writing, James Brumley did not hold a position in any of the aforementioned securities. You can follow him on Twitter, at @jbrumley.

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