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Cisco Stock Investors Party Like It’s 1999. It’s Not.

Dana Blankenhorn

Shares in Cisco Systems (NASDAQ:CSCO) haven’t been this hot in 20 years. Back then, Cisco briefly reigned as the world’s most valuable company, its switches and routers being at the heart of this new thing called “the internet.”

Cisco Stock Investors Party Like It’s 1999. It’s Not.

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Those days are gone, along with the sweet, sad song of your dial-up modem. But Cisco stock is up 33% so far in 2019. The bull run continued July 10 as analysts applauded its $2.6 billion buyout of Acacia Communications (NASDAQ:ACIA), due to close at the back end of a fiscal year that begins in August.

Acacia was already supplying optical interconnects for Cisco switches.  Buying the company gives Cisco intellectual property it can use to keep selling gear to both the Cloud Czars and their retinue, the co-location sites, telcos and scaled enterprises that are constantly demanding more speed from their connections.

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But is this an offensive or defensive move?

Fighting Huawei

Of all the large U.S. tech companies, none is as much in the crosshairs of China’s Huawei as Cisco.

Huawei was the main target for President Donald Trump in the China trade war, but this week’s relaxation of those sanctions means its lower-cost networking gear is back in the frame, at least for international buyers.

The companies I call the Cloud Czars — Apple (NASDAQ:AAPL), Amazon (NASDAQ:AMZN), Microsoft (NASDAQ:MSFT), Alphabet (NASDAQ:GOOG, NASDAQ:GOOGL) and Facebook (NASDAQ:FB) — are always focused on cutting costs in their data centers, where capital spending now costs $100 billion per year.

Low-cost, commodity hardware built with open-source standards always has an advantage in this market, against any proprietary solution. Huawei sales have risen nearly 10-fold in the last decade.

As the relationship between Huawei, with its low costs, and U.S. companies thaws, Cisco needs control of patented technology to stay relevant. The result has been a buying spree. It bought Duo Security last year for $2.35 billion in cash and stock; then chip maker Luxtera for $660 million in cash and assumed equity; and, now, Acacia.

Cisco Stock Is Not Cheap

Industry analysts and market analysts all approve this strategy, which is why Cisco is a hot stock.

At around $57 per share, Cisco has a market cap of $244 billion. By some metrics, the price is still reasonable —  the trailing price-to-earnings ratio is under 20, and it offers a 35-cent quarterly dividend yielding 2.5%. But until this year, Cisco was considered a dividend aristocrat, not a growth play.

As one analyst (OK, it was me) wrote last year, “boring can be beautiful.”  Even in May I called Cisco a conservative tech investment, suggesting you just put it in your pocket and let time work its magic.

That article was published soon after I took my own advice and stuck some Cisco in my own retirement account, at about $51.40 according to my bookie. (OK, it was my broker.) I’m up 10% in three months, plus there’s that dividend, still better than the 2.07% yield on a 10-year government bond.

The Bottom Line

Cisco is still Cisco. It’s not BeyondMeat (NASDAQ:BYND). This is not 1999. My red beard is not coming back.

The moves CSCO stock has made in the last year, and the moves it will continue to make, are primarily defensive in nature. Cisco CEO Chuck Robbins knows that, as hardware becomes software, maintaining a proprietary edge against low-cost solutions remains essential.

That’s going to cost money. Cisco is spending money. It had nearly $25 billion in cash and short-term securities in the bank as of March. Acacia represents just over 10% of that cash, a small price to pay for protecting its exposed flank.

Just be aware. That flank remains exposed.

Dana Blankenhorn is a financial and technology journalist. He is the author of a new environmental story, Bridget O’Flynn and the Bear, available now at the Amazon Kindle store. Write him at danablankenhorn@gmail.com or follow him on Twitter at @danablankenhorn. As of this writing he owned shares in MSFT, AMZN, AAPL, and CSCO.

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