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Wait for the Trade War to Play Out Before Buying Cisco Stock

Thomas Niel

Cisco (NASDAQ:CSCO) has had a tough August. Shares are down over 17% in the past month, from an open of $56.69 on July 29 to $47.10 at the close Aug. 26. The earnings release on Aug. 15 met analyst expectations. But with next-quarter guidance projecting minimal growth, investors are having second thoughts on the future of CSCO stock.

Wait for the Trade War to Play Out Before Buying Cisco Stock

Source: Ken Wolter / Shutterstock.com

With this in mind, is CSCO a buy? The stock trades at a fair valuation. But with geopolitical risks like the U.S.-China trade war and anticipated declines in share buybacks, it may be tough to find upside. Let’s take a closer look at the present and future performance of Cisco stock.

A Closer Look at Cisco Stock

As mentioned above, CSCO announced earnings on Aug. 15. Sales for the quarter ending July 27 were up 6% year-over-year, with full-year revenue up 7% from the prior fiscal year. Revenue growth was driven by the company’s Security (up 14%), Applications (up 11%) and Infrastructure (up 6%) units. Software-as-a-service style software subscriptions now make up 70% of total software revenue. But the company does not anticipate high growth in the next quarter. CSCO projects 0%-2% year-over-year revenue growth and earnings per share between $0.64-$0.69.

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How about the elephant in the room (the U.S.-China trade war)? Sales in China were down 25%. As the trade war continues to accelerate, revenue decline could continue. Any year-over-year decline in total revenue would materially impact Cisco stock.

In light of this, what positive catalysts are in the pipeline for CSCO stock? CSCO recently concluded a buyback plan initiated back in FY18. During that time frame, the company bought back $32.6 billion worth of Cisco stock. The company plans to continue to return capital to shareholders, albeit with a lower level of buybacks. The company plans to devote at least 50% of free cash flow to both share buybacks and dividends. Net of capital expenditures, the company has up to $14.9 billion a year in cash flow. Subtracting $6 billion per year in dividends, this leaves  about $8.9 billion max for buybacks.

Can Acquisitions Help CSCO Move the Needle?

CSCO has $33.4 billion in cash on hand. With the company stepping off the gas pedal for buybacks, acquisitions could be their key to growth. The company announced a deal to buy Acacia Communications (NASDAQ:ACIA) in July. As InvestorPlace’s James Brumley discussed Aug. 1, this proposed $2.6 billion deal solidifies CSCO as a 5G hardware supplier. Acacia’s products help facilitate long-distance transfer of massive data loads.

Once 5G reaches critical mass, CSCO will be in the thick of it, supplying hardware to keep the data flowing across the globe.

CSCO has made additional bolt-on deals since 2018. As Brumley discussed, the company has acquired Sentryo, Singularity Networks and six other companies. These bolt-on deals take just a few billion, tops, to execute, leaving plenty of runway for CSCO to grow via mergers and acquisitions. But does the current Cisco stock valuation price in this opportunity?

Let’s take a look at how the stock’s valuation stacks up to peers.


Cisco Stock Is Undervalued to Peers

CSCO stock currently trades at a forward price-to-earnings ratio of 13.1. The company’s current enterprise value/EBITDA ratio is 11.7. Here are the current valuation ratios of some of CSCO’s closest peers:

  • Ciena (NYSE:CIEN): forward P/E of 16, EV/EBITDA of 13.4
  • Motorola (NYSE:MSI): forward P/E of 20.1, EV/EBITDA of 17.3
  • Nokia (NYSE:NOK): forward P/E  of 12, EV/EBITDA of 9.5
  • LM Ericsson (NASDAQ:ERIC): forward P/E of 15.8, EV/EBITDA of 11.1

On a P/E basis, CSCO stock trades at a discount to the aforementioned peers. On an EV/EBITDA basis, Cisco stock trades in line with its larger peers NOK and ERIC. I believe this is a fair valuation for CSCO stock. While the company could jump start growth via its bolt-on acquisitions, the company’s weak short-term guidance is a concern. Coupled with the China risk, I can see CSCO stock falling further. Other legacy tech companies such as Intel (NASDAQ:INTC) and International Business Machine (NYSE:IBM) trade at forward P/E ratios around 10. I could easily see CSCO stock fall to that valuation level.

The Bottom Line on Cisco Stock

The China situation has taken a toll on Cisco stock. The company’s China operations are just a small part of the business. But if sales continue to fall, the company will have a hard time even meeting its low-ball guidance next quarter. Relative to peers, Cisco stock trades at a fair valuation. But with the growth issues, I can easily see CSCO stock start to trade at a lower valuation.

So what’s the bottom line? Investors should wait out the China situation. Additional Chinese sales declines could push the stock further down. But long term, the company’s mergers and acquisitions strategy could help resurrect growth as 5G becomes the standard. Wait for the trade war to reach its nadir before entering CSCO stock.

As of this writing, Thomas Niel did not hold a position in any of the aforementioned securities.

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