IBM-Sun: Nothing but March madness?

Contact: Brenon Daly

Maybe the speculation around IBM buying Sun Microsystems was nothing more than a bit of March Madness. When reports surfaced last month that a deal could be in the works, Sun’s long-ailing shares soared from about $5 to nearly $9 in a single session. (At the time, we also looked at what a potential pairing of the tech giants might mean.) And it wasn’t just sporadic trading that powered the mid-March move. More than 160 million Sun shares traded the day after The Wall Street Journal carried its report on initial talks, meaning volume was eight times heavier than average.

It turns out that anybody who bought the stock from then until last Friday is now underwater. (Or to continue our NCAA basketball terminology, they’ve had their bracket busted.) Both the WSJ and The New York Times reported Monday that a deal – even at a lowered price – may be off the table. Sun shares gave up one-quarter of their value in Monday afternoon trading, falling to about $6.50 each. Volume was again several times heavier than average.

Amid all these reports of tough negotiating and ‘recalibrated’ deal terms, we’re reminded of the five-month saga of one public company buying another public company last year. In mid-July, Brocade Communications unveiled a $3bn offer for Foundry Networks, paying nearly all of that in cash and only a tiny slice in equity. As the equity markets plunged last October, the two sides agreed to lower the deal value to $2.6bn by trimming the cash price and removing the equity component. (Brocade shares had been cut in half during the time from the announcement to the readjustment.)

Now, the combined Brocade-Foundry entity, which has existed since mid-December, has a total market capitalization of just $1.5bn. In fact, my colleague Simon Robinson recently speculated that Brocade may be attracting interest from suitors. One of the names that has popped up? IBM, which would get an instant presence in the networking market. And if Big Blue is done with Sun (as reports suggest), then perhaps the company will just shift its M&A focus.