Investors fail to bite at Microsoft Wall Street pow-wow
ANAHEIM, California (Reuters) - A rising tide of investor agitation over Microsoft Corp's static share price and bulging cash hoard made no mark at the software company's annual meeting with Wall Street analysts and fund managers on Wednesday.
Despite recent calls for a big dividend increase, and the head of Chief Executive Steve Ballmer -- who has presided over a halving of the company's share price in his 11-year tenure -- investors left the matters of management and cash distribution untouched at the three-hour meeting in Anaheim, California.
"Nobody asked the question," one fund manager, who had earlier identified Microsoft's use of its $53 billion cash hoard as the most important issue facing investors, said after the meeting. "We want to see more of a bank dividend," said the fund manager, who asked not to be named.
Microsoft currently pays a 2.5 percent dividend, which stands somewhere in the middle of large, established technology companies but lags other established industries.
The company is expected to raise its quarterly dividend modestly next week -- as it does most years -- but has shown no indication that it will bow to investor demands to double its dividend or make another special payout as it did in 2004.
Chief financial officer Peter Klein said returning cash to shareholders was one of the company's main goals, but gave no indication of great changes ahead.
"They are restricted in what they can do," said Sid Parakh, analyst with money manager McAdams Wright Ragen, who attended the meeting, pointing out that most of Microsoft's cash pile is sitting overseas, preventing any easy distribution to shareholders.
"It was a reaffirmation of what they have been saying, they've been pretty clear," said Parakh, who believes the tension between shareholders and the company is largely a media invention.
In a half-hour Q&A session with executives at the conclusion of the event, questions predominantly from Wall Street sell-side analysts focused on the new Windows 8 and broader strategic questions on how Microsoft is tying together its software for PCs, tablets and phones in the age of "cloud computing."
Ballmer, whose tenure as CEO has included the collapse of the tech stock boom shortly after he took over, did not address recent remarks by influential hedge fund manager David Einhorn. Einhorn called for Ballmer's removal and demanded the sale of the online services unit, including Bing. The unit has lost more than $6 billion in the last three years.
Neither did Ballmer talk about a letter from an anonymous investor that was widely circulated over the summer, calling for the company to issue $40 billion of debt to fund a massive share buyback and to direct all its domestic cash flow toward paying dividends, which the investor calculated would increase the share price by more than 50 percent.
Ballmer gave no indication he was thinking of selling Bing or dropping its slow-growing smartphone business.
"I'm not saying I love where we are," he said of the phone business. "We've just got to kick this thing to the next level," he said, referring to the agreement with Nokia to make Windows phones, expected on the market later this year.
The previous day, Microsoft showed off progress on its Windows 8 operating system, expected to be released next year, to generally good reviews from developers and tech blogs. More than 500,000 people downloaded a test version of the new system overnight, Microsoft said.
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