Thursday, September 27, 2007

Red Hat Worth a New Look

I do not own Red Hat stock, but it is now on my list of stocks to consider when I can add a new position. After years in the wilderness, Red Hat has lately proven that it can make profits and grow them rapidly. Strangely, this once red-hot stock has been largely forgotten by investors, so it is reasonably, but cheaply priced.

You can get the latest details in my summary of the Tuesday, September 25, 2007 analyst conference with fiscal Q2 results. But the long-term history of Red Hat is more enlightening. Back around 1999 people were talking about the open source operating system known as Linux as being a Microsoft killer. I got started in technical research after pointing out that Linux was more likely to kill Sun Microsystems and other Unix players than to hurt Microsoft, at least in the short run. I was right: Linux then and now required a great deal of technical expertise to use.

Red Hat was the favorite stock of the Linux and anti-Microsoft crowd back then. It was always a good company with the goal of making Linux an operating system that enterprises could depend on. But you know about investor enthusiasm: Red Had stock was priced as if it was already on the inside track to defeating Microsoft before it had made any profits, even before it had substantial revenue. Recall that Linux is free. Red Hat had to find a way to profit from selling a product that is free, which is not so easy.

Take a look at Red Hat's stock price over the years (at You can see that its IPO price was above today's price. It peaked around December 1999. By July of 2001 it had slumped to $3 per share; I wish I had picked some up then! But in fact in 2001 Red Hat was not profitable and revenues were minimal, so $3 was pretty generous.

But while investors did what they do best, betting irrationally, the workers and management at Red Hat trudged on. Their Red Hat Linux gained traction year after year. It is worth it to corporations to buy a version of Linux that is proven to work at the enterprise level, and to be able to get support when they need it.

In Q2 Red Hat's revenues were $127 million. Microsoft's were $13.4 billion. Other major players are competing in the Linux space now, notably Novell and Oracle. But I think it is fair to say that Red Hat is the Linux brand leader. Red Hat is also a good virtualization play and now owns the JBoss brand; I think both of these will be valuable going forward.

Red Hat should now be able to grow revenues faster than costs, so profits should grow faster than revenues (on a percentage basis).

Another plus for Red Hat is its cash. With equivalents it has $1.3 billion. That is a hefty war chest.

Red Hat's main risks going forward are the usual macroeconomic and competitive risks. Microsoft is enormously profitable; it could lower its pricing on its server software if it ever thought Linux or Red Hat were a serious risk.

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