Buying back stock, rather than buying up companies

Contact: Brenon Daly

For a risk-averse company like IBM, it’s always preferable to buy a known than an unknown. At least that’s one way to read its decision to pass on taking home Sun Microsystems at any cost and instead put its money toward repurchasing a slug of its own equity. The recently announced $3bn buyback works out to just under half the amount that Big Blue was reported to have been ready to hand over for Sun.

That’s a fundamentally sound – if conservative – allocation of capital for IBM, a dividend-paying member of the Dow Jones Industrial Average. Nonetheless, it didn’t stop Sun’s winning suitor, Oracle, from tweaking Big Blue, saying it only got involved after IBM ‘failed’ to close the deal. For the record, we would note that since the ‘failure,’ IBM shares have moved higher while Oracle stock is essentially flat with where it was when the acquirer announced its bid. Of course, that verdict is based on just three weeks of trading.

IBM isn’t the only firm spending cash on its own shares rather than the equity of other vendors. Citrix, which hasn’t announced an acquisition in more than a half-year, recently said it plans to buy back some $300m of stock. Even when Citrix does do deals these days, they tend to be tiny purchases. Since acquiring XenSource in August 2007, Citrix has made just four small technology plays. We would chalk that up to the fact that Wall Street has been underwhelmed with Citrix’s purchase of XenSource, its largest-ever deal. And that doesn’t appear likely to change. At last week’s Synergy 2009 conference, Citrix barely mentioned M&A.