For IBM, much of the last eight years simply posting positive revenue growth was a challenge. In fact, the company had a period between 2013 and 2018 when it experienced an astonishing 22 straight quarters of negative revenue growth. So when Big Blue reported yesterday that revenue was up slightly, I'm sure the company took that as a win. Investors appear to be happy with the results, with the stock up 4.73% this morning as of publication.
Consider that over the last eight quarters encompassing FY2019 and FY2020, the company had only one positive revenue quarter when it was up 0.1% in Q42019. It had had five losing quarters prior to that one. When you look at yesterday's report in that light, and combine it with growth in the Cloud and Cognitive Services group, it adds up to a decent quarter for IBM, one it badly needed after another negative report in the prior quarter.
Looking back at the January report, the company reported Cloud and Cognitive Services revenues down 4.5% at $6.8 billion, which was a big blow, considering the company has been betting much of its future on those very areas, fueled in large part by the $34 billion Red Hat acquisition in 2018.
Its most recent quarterly report proved much better, with the company reporting Cloud and Cognitive Services revenues of $5.4 billion, up 3.8% YoY. Interestingly quarter-on-quarter revenue for the segment was down, but rose on a year-over-year basis. Perhaps a year-end enterprise revenue push could account for the difference between Q4 2020 and Q1 2021.
At any rate, IBM CEO Arvind Krishna saw today's report as a positive sign that his attempts to push the company toward a future focused on hybrid computing and AI were starting to take root. He also saw enough in the report to predict some growth this year.
"In our last call, we shared our financial expectations for the year, revenue growth and $11 billion to $12 billion of adjusted free cash flow. While it’s still early in the year and a lot remains to be done, we are confident enough to say that we are on track," Krishna said in the earnings call with analysts yesterday.
The company has made a number of smaller acquisitions over the last year, including a couple of consulting companies, which should help as they try to work with customers around the transition to hybrid computing and artificial intelligence, both of which tend to require a lot of hand-holding to get done.
At the same time, of course, the company is continuing apace with its spin out of the legacy infrastructure services division, which it announced last year. The plan at this point is to rename the company Kyndryl (an unfortunate choice) and complete the spin out by year's end.
CFO Jim Kavanaugh also sees the modestly positive quarter as something the company can build on. "...in fact we are even more confident in the position we put in place with regards to our two most important measures, one, revenue growth, and second, adjusted free cash flow, which is going to provide the fuel for the investments needed for us to capture that hybrid cloud $1 trillion TAM," Kavanaugh said in the earnings call with analysts.
All of this is being pushed by Red Hat, which grew revenue 15% in the most recent quarter, something the company is banking will continue to advance it deeper into positive territory throughout the rest of 2021.
Krishna is not looking for booming growth by any means. He just wants growth, and even sustained single-digit top line expansion will make him happy. "Our systems if I take a two-year to three-year view kind of flattish, but in any given year it might increase or decrease but not by a whole lot. It doesn’t impact the top line a lot and that’s how sort of we get to the mid-single-digit sustainably," Krishna said in the call.
The CEO simply wants to bring some long-term stability back to the company it has been sadly lacking in recent years. Of course, it's hard to know if this quarter was a temporary upward blip on IBM's earnings chart, one of those fluctuations up or down he spoke of, or if it is the corner the company has been looking to turn for years. Only time will tell whether IBM can sustain the modest revenue goals Krishna has set for the organization, or if it will fall back into the revenue doldrums that have plagued the company for the last eight years.