Saturday, March 28, 2009

Red Hat (RHT) Runs Through Open Field

Red Hat (RHT) is my favorite company to watch because of all the stocks I know its history most clearly demonstrates the need to differentiate between the stock value and the finances of the underlying company. I became interested in Red Hat in the last years of the last century. I am now invested in the company, so you might want to take that into account in case I fall into the cheerleading for my own stocks trap.

Investors often talk of overvalued and undervalued company stocks. Typically one looks at the market capitalization of the company: the value of the stock shares times the number of the shares. This gives a total value for the company. Then one looks at the "true" criteria, which typically is some measure of future profits the company can generate, times some multiplier of how much capital it would typically take to generate those profits. If the market capitalization is higher than the "true" value, the company is overvalued.

Red Hat was one of many companies billed by Wall Street as a "next Microsoft" during the technology boom of the 1990's. Given that Red Hat was already establishing leadership in commercializing the Linux operating system, this was not an altogether dismissible line of reasoning. After all, the Microsoft empire was built around its original operating system, MS-DOS, which later evolved into Windows. The problem was that the stock was bid up to prices implying that being the next Microsoft was a done deal.

Several easily discernable obstacles stood in the way of Red Hat becoming the new Lord of the Computerverse. First, it really did not have very many paying clients in the year 2000. Second, Linux is Open Source, and can be had for free, which really cuts into profit margins compared to a proprietary system like Windows. Third, there was a lot of competition within the Linux space for the few commercial dollars available to it.

Red Hat stock took a big plunge in 2002. In retrospect, that was the time to buy. The stock was almost free. Investors did not want it. Partly they finally understood the three points I made above, but mostly investors don't like to buy stocks that are falling in price.

This week, on March 25th, Red Hat reported on its fourth quarter of fiscal 2009 that ended on February 28. Red Hat is still not the next Microsoft. But it is a highly profitable company with a secure niche in the computing space. Red Hat Enterprise Linux (RHEL) is the gold standard for Linux. Other closely related open source spaces are now attached to it, notably virtualization software and JBoss middleware. In addition, Red Hat has a huge cash reserve. Its profits on a cash basis are typically far above its profits on a GAAP basis.

It is a good company, and its earnings per share are a lot higher than what you can get on T-Bills right now. So it is not too late to buy in. But it is not the next Microsoft. Open Source people just don't bring the predatory hunger to the table that Bill Gates and crew had in their first couple of decades. Red Hat will continue to grow because it enhances the business goals of its customers. It will run profitably, but it won't be able to create the kind of monopoly profits Microsoft has been able to create.

I expect that as soon as IT budgets loosen up again, a lot of enterprises are going to make the shift to Red Hat products. But how big of an income and profit bump that will provide is not easy to predict.

So keep diversified.

And see my Red Hat Q4 fiscal 2009 analyst conference summary for details on the latest quarter.

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