Don’t Expect a Quick Rebound for RIMM

01/25/2012 10:45 am EST


John Heinzl

Reporter and Columnist,

The change in leadership won’t be a miracle cure for this flailing company, writes Fabrice Taylor of The President’s Club for The Globe and Mail.

When you’re short the stock of a company in deep distress, as I am with Research in Motion (RIMM), a Sunday night news release is not something to take lightly. Odds are it’s either going to deliver very bad or very good news. RIMM’s announcement, in my view, is a harbinger of bad things to come.

The company still has a chance—perhaps a slightly better one, thanks to its new leadership—of turning things around, and I hope it makes it. (Ideally, I would like to cover my short position one day and profit from a rebound.) But the latest developments bolster my belief that the next year or so is likely to hold a cascade of bad news.

Right now, investors are focused on Thorsten Heins, the new guy. The detractors say he’s a nerdy engineer, he doesn’t have the consumer touch, and he’s unknown. These might be important points, but they miss a much more discouraging signal, which is that RIMM’s long-time co-CEOs Mike Lazaridis and Jim Balsillie are bowing out at this particular moment.

While I’m sure they could feel the gentle hands of their fellow directors on their backs, do you really think they would hand over the reins if they thought the company was on the cusp of a turnaround?

Of course not. They’d want to stick around and reap the much-deserved credit, especially after the drubbing they’ve taken for their ham-handedness over the past couple of years. Who wouldn’t?

RIMM has hemorrhaged market share because the competition has gotten better and faster, which is normal, and also because of its own missteps, such as pushing out half-baked products like the first PlayBook tablet. Its transition to QNX, a new operating system, is particularly worrisome.

You can be forgiven for suspecting that the move isn’t going well. Otherwise, why the repeated delays?

This is, of course, just conjecture. Outsiders never have the insights of CEOs, who get daily reports about what’s happening in research and development and sales and so on. That RIMM’s veteran co-CEOs are walking out now suggests that they don’t see much light at the end of the tunnel, and can’t muster the energy or conviction to push back against their critics inside and outside the boardroom.

For some investors, the shuffle at the top doesn’t matter. They’re buying the stock on takeover hopes, and all it takes to fuel their emotions is a blogger who claims to have secret sources telling them Samsung (SSNLF) is trying to buy RIMM.

A sale is indeed possible at some point. After all, it’s pretty hard to be a $20 billion or $30 billion player when your competition—Apple (AAPL), Microsoft (MSFT), Google (GOOG)—have market caps ten times bigger.

But RIMM has to turn itself around before it will be an attractive acquisition. Buyers don’t, as a rule, line up to purchase damaged and deteriorating technology franchises. They want either growing companies or ones, like Palm, that have hit rock bottom and can be scooped up for a song, simply for their brand name and customer lists. RIMM is still somewhere in the middle.

Price matters. Samsung (which, for the record, denies it tried to buy RIMM) is not going to spend $15 billion for RIMM’s proprietary messaging service BlackBerry Messenger, as the rumor mill suggested. You could replicate the service for a lot less.

That said, there is some good news beyond the change in leadership. Lazaridis says he’ll buy $50 million of stock. And value investor Prem Watsa has joined the board and says, “We’re going to look at doing the same.”

That’s not quite a ringing endorsement of the company’s value (although Watsa’s Fairfax Financial (Toronto: FFH) is already a sizable shareholder), so it’s worth watching both men’s insider trading reports over the next few months.

They may buy more shares but that doesn’t mean it’ll be at the current prices. (Balsillie apparently doesn’t share the faith—at least, he hasn’t stated any intention to buy more RIMM shares.)

Behavioral analysis is often more important than looking at the numbers, which in RIMM’s case are pretty good. The behavioral read, in my opinion, tells a less promising story.

A turnaround is still possible, but it appears that there may well be more stock-withering news before that happens.

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