Cutting the ties that bind

Contact: Brenon Daly

As the business prospects for this year continue to deteriorate, companies are increasingly looking to shed underperforming divisions. VeriSign, for example, has already divested two units so far this year and still has a handful of others on the block. As drawn-out and money-losing as divestitures can be, it’s almost always preferable to the alternative of actually hanging on to the struggling businesses. At least that’s the view from Wall Street, which rarely dings a company for pruning.

We’ve been thinking about this in recent weeks as we’ve seen the projections for PC sales in 2009 get pulled back again and again. The bearish outlook has caused most PC makers to overhaul their strategies for selling boxes. For instance, Lenovo has scaled back its expectations for selling PCs in Europe and North America, and will instead focus on its home Chinese market, particularly the rural sector. The shift essentially undercuts the need for IBM’s PC business, which Lenovo picked up four years ago. (IBM took payment for the divestiture in cash and stock, booking a pre-tax gain of about $1bn.)

Of course, it’s hard to know how that division would have fared if Big Blue hadn’t shed it. And, it’s virtually impossible to calculate how much of a drag PCs, which accounted for about 10% of IBM’s sales, would have been on the overall company’s performance. But consider this: Since IBM closed the divestiture in mid-2005, Dell shares, which stand as the closest proxy to the PC industry, have lost 75% of their value and are trading at their lowest level since 1997.