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BlackBerry 10 Will Not Save RIMM

With a little more than a week to go before BB10 hits the stores, Research in Motion (Nasdaq:$RIMM) has become a hot stock again.  The company that invented the smartphone may be reestablishing itself as a major player in mobile.  Or, we could be watching the biggest dead-cat bounce in history.

RIMM

As recently as this past September, RIMM was left for dead, trading for barely $6 per share.  As this article is going to press, it has nearly tripled from those levels.  A rally that large and over that long a stretch cannot be dismissed as short covering.  Clearly, a lot of investors believe that the BlackBerry is making a comeback.

We’ll see about that.

If you’re a nimble trader with a short time horizon, RIMM might be worth a gamble.  Given the current level of speculation in the stock, there should be some great trading opportunities over the next few weeks, long and short.

But if you’re an investor with a longer time horizon, you should view the rally in RIMM’s shares with a healthy dose of skepticism.  RIMM is not Apple (Nasdaq: $AAPL), Google (Nasdaq:$GOOG) or Microsoft (Nasdaq:$MSFT).    Any of these tech giants can afford to make a colossal mistake or two or to have a new product bomb.  Microsoft and Google have both proven this; with the exception of the Android operating system, neither company has come out with a hit product in years, yet both continue to generate gobs of cash.  Even the infallible Apple had its Maps public relations disaster last year, yet it hardly slowed the company down (stock price crater aside).

But RIMM?  For the erstwhile mobile leader, BB10 is do or die.  If the operating system fails to inspire consumers, then the company is finished.  This is a binary set of outcomes.  Either BB10 is a hit, and RIMM matters again, or it is a bomb and it is time to sell off the company’s assets and close up shop.  Given the competitiveness of the smartphone race, no prudent investor would make that bet.

Let’s pick apart some of the bullish arguments.

RIMM’s messaging and secure email system is a competitive advantage that keeps customers—and particularly enterprises—loyal.  Wrong.  I used to think I would miss my BlackBerry messenger and inbox…right up until I bought an Android.

But beyond this, one anecdotal bit of news late last year made me realize that BlackBerry was finished.  Fannie Mae—the quintessential enterprise customer with overzealous security requirements—was allowing their portfolio managers to turn in their company-issued BlackBerries and instead access their company email via their own iPhones and Androids using a custom app.

I had been skeptical that the “bring your own device” trend would ever expand beyond small businesses.  Big business and government would never tolerate the loss of control or security risks.  Well, never say never.  When government-sponsored entities allow it, it’s hard to imagine who won’t.

BB10’s new features are a “game changer.” Really?  Because everything I see looks a lot like something I’ve seen somewhere else.  The new BlackBerry Messenger (BBM) has voice calling, so you can call friends internationally from wifi or your data plan and not use mobile minute.

It seems like I’ve seen this before.  Oh yeah, it’s called Skype, and it’s already available on every other mobile platform except the BlackBerry.

Rumor has it that BB10 has the fastest browser.  Ok.  For lack of better information at the moment, I’ll concede that point.  But given that mobile devices tend to be app-driven and not browser-driven, that’s a small victory at best.

Rumor also has it that BB10 will have the best auto-correct and word prediction, which are valid selling points for a touchscreen phone.  But will that compel a customer to choose a BlackBerry over the newest, snazziest Samsung Galaxy?  I’m thinking no.

There is huge pent-up demand for the BB10 after months of delays.  This is laughable.  Yes, plenty of current BlackBerry users will upgrade.  But given the poor experience with the brand in recent years, I don’t see too many former users who defected to the iPhone or Android going back.  They’ve moved on, and whatever they found appealing about the BlackBerry ecosystem in the past—such as BBM, which is still the best texting program out there—they have found they can live without.

A related issue here is cost.   I was poking around the T-Mobile store a few weeks ago (shopping for a Windows phone, incidentally) when I picked up the current generation BlackBerry Bold.  Buying it outside of contract, it costs over $600.

Seriously?   $600…for the old, clunky non-BB10 edition?  What will a new one cost? For consumers to give BB10 a chance, it will have to be aggressively subsidized and pushed by the carriers.  Will they?  All major carriers have pledged “support.”  We’ll see what that means in practice.

RIMM’s share price is soaring today on comments from CEO Thorsten Heins that the company’s strategic review could include selling off its hardware production or licensing its software.  I argued a year ago that RIMM could have a bright future as a services company by building on Mobile Fusion.  It could essential follow the path of IBM and become a high-end services company rather than a gadget maker.

But a year later, it’s still nothing more than speculation. And with RIMM no longer dictating terms, carriers have started to push back on the licensing fees for BlackBerry Internet Service and Enterprise Server.

And who, pray tell, would buy RIMM’s hardware business?  Or more importantly, license BB10 as a manufacturer?  Samsung?  Nokia?  Probably not; both have made large commitments to Android and Windows.

RIMM doesn’t have a lot of time.  It’s bleeding cash, and it isn’t expected to turn a profit this year.  For RIMM, BB10 must be a rip-roaring success.  Failure means irrelevance and death.

And let’s not forget one last point.  RIMM is not really competing with Apple or Google right now.  It’s competing with Microsoft to be the third platform.

It is in everyone’s best interest to avoid an Apple-Google duopoly.  Consumers, manufacturers, and carriers all stand to benefit from more competition.  But I’m betting that it is Microsoft that pushes its way in, not Research in Motion.  Microsoft is starting with a clean slate and a fine operating system that any manufacturer can license.  There is no baggage and no cumbersome technology arrangements (think BIS and BES) with which to contend.

Samsung is set to launch its ATIV Windows phone (essentially a Galaxy that runs Windows instead of Android) in the United States about a week before BB10 hits the market.   We’ll see which ends up making a bigger splash.

I wouldn’t be too quick to short RIMM at the moment.  It’s simply too hot to touch.  But once the new release hype has run its course, RIMM could be an absolute feast for bears.

Disclosure: Sizemore Capital is long MSFT.

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Beware the Crap Rally

The last few weeks have seen a rally in…well…for lack of better word, “crap.”

Before Tuesday’s correction, Research in Motion (Nasdaq: $RIMM) had risen 37% since just the beginning of this month and had nearly doubled from the low hit over the summer.

Facebook (Nasdaq: $FB), the company that may be remembered as the most disappointing IPO in decades, is up more than 36% in just the past two weeks.

Even Dell (Nasdaq: $DELL), the perpetually cheap PC maker that has struggled to stay relevant in the age of cheap Chinese competition and from upstart tablets and smartphones, has shown signs of life. The stock is up 13% in just the past week and a half.

What’s going on here?   Do investors really see value in these tech disappointments, or is this just the mother of all short-covering rallies?

It’s a little of both.  Let’s take a look at each company separately.

Research in Motion has been a real frustration to me as a former bull.  This was the company that invented the smartphone and as recently as a year ago could have remained the dominant player in the corporate market had they played their cards right.

Alas, they didn’t play their cards right.  In fact, they didn’t really play their cards at all.  For the life of me, I can’t figure out what the company has been doing for the past two years.  BB10—the new operating system that is supposed to compete with Apple’s (Nasdaq: $AAPL) iPhone and Google’s (Nasdaq: $GOOG) Android phones—is scheduled to be released in February of next year.  That’s almost a year later than originally planned, assuming they meet the deadline.  And given the company’s recent history, that is not a certainty.

You almost have to work to screw things up as badly as RIMM did.   Even after the company started to fall behind its rivals, it had assets of real value.  Its BBM messenger is still the best texting and instant messaging program on the market, and it could have been monetized as a standalone app for sale in the Apple and Google app stores.  But it wasn’t, and every day that passes it becomes less relevant as its pool of current users dwindles.

I still see value in RIMM’s Mobile Fusion platform, which allows corporate IT departments to manage iPhones and Androids on the equivalent of a BlackBerry Enterprise Server.  But there is a very significant risk that the company will fail before they have time to fully develop this.

RIMM still looks cheap—on paper.  It has roughly $2 billion in cash and an estimated billion or so in patents.  Backing these out, the value of RIMM as a going concern is currently only about $2-3 billion.  A good activist investor could buy RIMM, chop it into pieces, and sell off its parts at a profit.  But before that happens, management will probably destroy a lot more value first.

It’s simply too late for BB10 to save RIMM.  A year ago, I think it would have had a chance.  But at this point, the company has too much baggage, and they are fighting for turf among the business crowd with a resurgent Microsoft (Nasdaq: $MSFT). (See “Microsoft Will Crush Google“)

Don’t get drawn into RIMM.  It’s a sucker’s rally.

But what about Facebook?

My wife and I have a rule of thumb for technology products.  Once our respective mothers use it, it’s over.  This is not to say that the company is going out of business, but its high-growth phase is clearly over.  When our mothers are using it, there is no one left to join.

Well, both of our mothers are now avid Facebook users.

You should take my “Mother Indicator” with a grain of salt, of course.  But given that Facebook trades for 40 times next year’s expected earnings, my concerns about growth start looking valid.  Facebook’s profits would have to grow at torrid pace in the years ahead for that valuation to be anything short of ludicrous.

Zuckerberg & Co. are anything if not creative (“ruthless” is another word that comes to mind), and I have no doubt that Facebook will find new ways to monetize its assets.  But the company depends mostly on paid advertising, which is not a proven model yet in the world of social media.  And rival Twitter seems to be getting more buzz these days.

Facebook is a $50-billion company with a questionable business model trading at a nosebleed valuation.  If you buy it, you are betting big on Zuckerberg’s ability to innovate.  I’m not willing to make that bet at current prices.

Finally, let’s look at Dell.  Dell is a good company in a terrible industry.  They make good computers and laptops, but both are commoditized products.  There simply isn’t much premium to be charged for selling a “good” PC these days.  All of the profit goes to Microsoft, the maker of the operating system, and Intel (Nasdaq: $INTC), the maker of the processor.

That said, Dell is ridiculously cheap, even for a seller of a commoditized product.  It sells for just 6 times expected 2013 earnings and for just 0.29 times sales, and at $9.77 per share its price is barely above the crisis lows it hit during the 2008-2009  meltdown.

Dell also has no net debt, a respectable return on equity of 27%, and a dividend of 3.4%.

There is a lot of bearishness towards Dell for the same reason that there is a lot of bearishness towards Microsoft and Intel.  Computers are no longer a growth industry. While I consider them far from “dead,” tablets and smartphones are creeping deeper and deeper into territory once dominated by PCs.   Investors simply have no interest in owning shares of yesterday’s tech darling.

And herein lies a potential opportunity.  Dell is interesting contrarian value play.  If you believe, as I do, that there is plenty of room for PCs, tablets, and laptops on the desks and in the lives of most consumers, then Dell should have a viable future.  And given that no one—as in not a single investor I have met in years—has any interest in owning Dell right now, your downside should be tolerably low.

If sentiment improves even modestly towards PCs, Dell could be an easy double over the next 12-24 months.

Disclosures: Sizemore Capital is long MSFT and INTC.  This article first appeared on InvestorPlace.

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How to Spot a Value Trap: Research in Motion

Question: When looking at cheaply-priced stocks, how do you know which ones are solid value stocks and which ones are dreaded value traps?

Answer: The value stocks eventually recover, whereas the value traps do not.

I realize that my answer is no more useful than Will Rogers’ advice to “Buy stocks that go up; if they don’t go up, don’t buy them,” and that is precisely my point. There is no systematic way to recognize a value trap.

Some sectors are more prone to value traps than others, and this is something I’ll elaborate on later in the article. But first I’ll give an example of a value trap that ensnared yours truly—BlackBerry maker Research in Motion ($RIMM).

When I first started considering RIMM last July, it was one of the cheapest companies in the world. At one point in time it traded for just 3 times earnings and barely half its book value.

My thinking when I bought RIMM was straightforward enough. While the company was losing the smart phone war to Apple ($AAPL) and Google ($GOOG), it had a strong and growing services business with sticky revenues, a strong and growing presence in emerging markets, and a rock-solid balance sheet. Yes, the company was losing market share, but its sales were still growing and a decent clip. At the price at which it traded, RIMM didn’t have to win the smart phone war in order to be a good investment; it merely had to survive.

In most industries, this would have been sound thinking and the makings of a great contrarian investment. But in technology, where platforms are everything, it doesn’t hold. Much like the Game of Thrones, with technology platforms you win or you die

Shrinking market share for your platform begets further shrinking market share. Retailers don’t want to take up shelf space better used for more popular products. Carriers don’t want to offer incentives. Programmers don’t want to write applications for a shrinking platform. Rather than a gentle decline, you get a sudden collapse.

Case in point RIMM. With the BlackBerry, RIMM invented the smartphone as we think of it today and quickly rose to dominance. After conquering the corporate and government markets, the success of the BlackBerry spilled over into the consumer market. BlackBerries became known as “CrackBerries” for their addictiveness. As recently as 2010, RIMM held nearly half of the smartphone market, only to see that market share shrink to single digits today.

Believe it or not, I do believe that RIMM has a future. But its future lies as a software and services company, providing enterprise e-mail, messaging and security, and not as a hardware maker. A slimmed down services-only RIMM would be worth owning at the right price. But before that happens, management will likely destroy quite a bit more value attempting to salvage their hardware and operating system.

Not all cheap tech companies are value traps, of course. Microsoft ($MSFT) and Intel ($INTC) have both been cheap for years, though both have strong underlying businesses nearly impervious to competition and both have been rewarding shareholders with a high and growing dividend.

As much as we would like for it to be, this is not an exact science, and you’re not going to get it right every time. In the end, the best defense against a value trap is emotional discipline. Look at your investments critically and don’t make excuses when they fail to perform. Use stop losses when appropriate. And be honest with yourself when you ask the question, “If I didn’t already own this stock, is this something I would want to buy today, knowing what I know?”

Oh, and follow Will Rogers advice about avoiding stocks that don’t go up.

Disclosures: Sizemore Capital is long INTC and MSFT. Alas, we were formerly long RIMM.

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When in Doubt, Follow the Greats

Stocks fell sharply as we started trading this week on fears that Europe’s sovereign debt crisis was again spiraling out of control.  Of course, I could have used that same opening sentence at almost any point in the last 10 months and it would have been equally true.  The remarkable thing about 2011 is that it has been largely devoid of any real news.  The macro concerns driving the market haven’t changed much in two years—and yet we continue to see some of the most volatile daily price swings since the Great Depression.

The art of investing is an exercise in making decisions under conditions of uncertainty.  But today, it seems that the cloud of uncertainty is a little thicker than usual.  Despite having two years to discount the likelihood and consequences of default by one or multiple “PIIGS,” the market’s persistent volatility shows that investors are as uncertain as ever.

I’ve been consistently bullish for most of the past year, arguing that the low prices on offer more than compensated investors for the risk of meltdown.  But I’m also the first to admit that the volatility of recent months has thoroughly frayed my nerves.

During times like these, I like to do what your college professor might have called “cheating.”  I like to look over the shoulders of other investors and see what they are doing.

As I wrote last week in an article on Warren Buffett’s recent acquisitions, you should never mindlessly ape the trading moves of another investor.  But studying the moves of successful investors can be an effective way to step back and get a little perspective on your own trades.

With all of this said, today I’m going to take a look at the portfolios of three of my favorite institutional investors: Mohnish Pabrai, Joel Greenblatt, and Prem Watsa.

Mohnish Pabrai

We’ll start with Pabrai, the author of the must-read The Dhandho Investor and a well-respected value investing guru.  Based on his SEC filing for the 3rd quarter, Pabrai went on a buying spree in the financial sector.  After initiating a massive position in Bank of America ($BAC) and adding to his already-large positions in Wells Fargo ($WFC) and Goldman Sachs ($GS), Pabrai’s weighting to the financial sector jumped from 39 percent of his portfolio to a whopping 58 percent with a fair bit of the reduction coming from basic materials. Materials dropped from 46 percent to 33 percent of the portfolio (see Pabrai’s portfolio here).

Though his returns are not reported, we can assume that Pabrai’s high allocation to financials has hurt his returns this year.  He wouldn’t be the first.  John Paulson’s flagship fund was at one point down by nearly half this year due to his high allocation to financials and his use of leverage (see Don’t Mess Up Like Paulson).  Still, Pabrai has proven to have a sharp eye for value over the years, even if he—like many other high-profile value investors—tends to be a little early.

Joel Greenblatt

Moving on, let’s now take a look at what Joel Greenblatt is buying these days.  Greenblatt runs Gotham Capital and is the author of the eminently readable The Little Book that Beats the Market.  Unlike Pabrai, Greenblatt tends to have a relatively high portfolio turnover.  He made few major moves in the third quarter, though he was a net buyer and added to his already large holdings in technology and industrials (see Greenblatt’s portfolio here).

Greenblatt is conspicuously under-allocated to the financial sector because much of the money he runs today follows his “magic formula,” which stresses high returns on capital.  Suffice it to say, the big banks are a little light on profits these days, so financials are not showing up on Greenblatt’s screen.  But with more than 40 percent of his portfolio invested in the cyclical technology and industrials sectors, Greenblatt is every bit as aggressively invested as Pabrai.

Prem Watsa

Finally, let’s take a look at Prem Watsa.  Watsa is the CEO of Fairfax Financial Holdings and is considered by many to be the “Warren Buffett of Canada.”  He has certainly earned the nickname.  He and his team have grown Fairfax’s book value per share by 25 percent per year for the past 25 years.  He was also one of the few managers that made money during the crisis year of 2008.  Not a bad run indeed.

Watsa’s portfolio moves will certainly raise a few eyebrows. In the 3rd quarter his added to his already large position in battered BlackBerry maker Research in Motion ($RIMM). He also increased his position in Citigroup ($C) by 50 percent.  Overall, his exposure to the financial sector rose from 9 percent to 24 percent in the third quarter (see Watsa’s holdings here).

Watsa was a slight net seller in the 3rd quarter, though the composition of his portfolio hardly suggests excessive bearishness at the moment.  More than 80 percent of his equity holdings are in technology, financials, and telecom.

As a caveat, there is a limit to what you can glean from reading SEC 13-F filings.  For example, only long positions are reported; short position and derivatives hedges are not.  And Prem Watsa, for example, does indeed hedge his equity positions.  Still, his willingness to be so heavily invested in some of the most volatile sectors would imply that he’s not quite as bearish as some of his public comments would suggest.

So there you have it.  Given the recent volatility, it’s entirely possible that the Dow has moved 100 points in the time it has taken you to read this article.  That’s nerve-racking, of course, even for an experienced investor.  Still, I see compelling bargains at current prices, and I consider the pervasive fear and bearishness among rank-and-file investors to be a contrarian bullish sign.  And when I start to get that feeling in the pit of my stomach, I take comfort in knowing that I’m on the same side of the trade as some of the brightest value investors in the business.

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