What Exactly Has Microsoft Delivered on Its Enormous R&D Investment?

| About: Microsoft Corporation (MSFT)

A couple of weeks ago at the D7 Conference in Carlsbad, Calif., Microsoft (NASDAQ:MSFT) CEO Steve Ballmer boasted the software company could create a lot of new things by spending $9.5 billion annually on research and development expenses. That's right, Microsoft spends almost $10 billion each year on R&D. That's more than any other company in the world, by a long shot.

R&D spending at many tech, pharmaceutical or biotech companies is treated as motherhood and apple pie. R&D is never a bad thing -- it's only good. More is always better. When you invest in research, you are investing in hope and possibilities. No matter how much you have lost in past projects that never panned out, every new dollar invested in a R&D project holds the possibility that it will deliver a large multiple of that dollar in future earnings before interest, taxes, depreciation and amortization.

Spending a lot on R&D would be a good thing for Microsoft if it was generating a large return from that investment. But that's not the case and it hasn't been the case for a long time. Ballmer's comments show that Microsoft's senior leadership is proud of its continued investment in R&D and sees it as a source of competitive advantage for the company. On an absolute dollar comparison basis, Microsoft is making a much bigger bet than most in this area.

Microsoft spent 46% more than the $6.5 billion IBM invested in R&D last year, 252% more than Oracle (NASDAQ:ORCL) ($2.7 billion), 763% more than Apple (NASDAQ:AAPL) ($1.1 billion), and 390% more than Google (NASDAQ:GOOG) ($2.8 billion). Yet, most would conclude that Microsoft isn't 9 times as innovative as Apple, despite the discrepancy in how much money it is pouring into its research activities. Beyond its Office, Client, and Server core franchises, it's difficult to name innovations associated with Microsoft.

What is also remarkable about Microsoft's spending on R&D is the cumulative total racked up over the years. In the last 10 years, Microsoft has invested $62 billion in the R&D area. Microsoft could have bought back nearly 40% of its stock with that amount; it could have beefed up its dividend; it could have made a string of acquisitions which presumably would have continued to grow its top and bottom lines more than what it has achieved organically.

It's hard to know exactly what Microsoft has delivered for its R&D investment; it doesn't break out the numbers according to its five business segments. However, the two smallest business segments -- Entertainment & Devices, which includes the Xbox, Zune, and Windows Mobile software groups, and Online Services, which includes Search, and the Microsoft MSN, Hotmail, and Messenger properties - likely have taken the lion's share of the investment. Combined, these two divisions have delivered $71 billion in revenue for Microsoft over those 10 years and $15 billion in losses.

So, what Microsoft's $62 billion R&D investment has led to is a $15 billion loss for at least those two businesses in 10 years.

Ballmer has argued that Wall Street investors are too focused on the short-term. One large Microsoft investor told me recently that Ballmer had complained loudly to him about the short-sightedness of investors who called on the company four years ago to do a large stock buyback and pay out a dividend with the excess cash on Microsoft's pristine balance sheet.

Ballmer apparently said to this large investor: "We did everything they asked for. We did a huge buyback. We did the biggest one-time dividend ever. And what good did it do us?"

Ballmer's right. Total shareholder returns, or TSR, for Microsoft since it initiated its stock buyback and dividend program are down 25%. For the last 10 years, TSRs fell 47% (as of early April). This includes returns from dividend payments (including the big, one-time dividend of $3 a share), as well as stock appreciation, over that time.

Is 10 years a sufficient amount of time for a shareholder to wait to judge a company's management team for how it has performed? Those TSR numbers are clearly unacceptable and likely reflect poor investment decisions and loss of confidence by shareholders in the future prospects for the company.

Over that same 10-year time period (again, as of early April), Apple's total shareholder returns have been 826%, Nintendo's (OTCPK:NTDOY) have been 243%, Oracle's have been 166%, IBM's have been 3%, and Nasdaq's returns have fallen 37% -- all substantially higher than Microsoft's TSRs.

If the predominant Microsoft strategy of investing more in internal R&D, steering away from acquisitions, and keeping tight control of the five business segments has led to these results in the last 10 years, should shareholders expect that the same approach will lead to different results in the next 10 years? Are we being "short-termists" or "flippers" of the stock by pointing out these results and suggesting they should have been much better?

R&D spending can lead to blockbuster returns. And Microsoft has a big advantage relative to its competitors in that it can invest enormous sums for future product development. But Microsoft, in being proud of the fact that it can spend almost $10 billion a year on R&D, is like a driller of oil and gas being proud of the fact that it can drill thousands of dry holes. It doesn't matter what you spend on R&D; it only matters what return you make from that investment for your investors. So far, Microsoft hasn't delivered on its promises.

A private-equity investor friend of mine once told me that he only liked investing in companies who practiced "small 'r' and large 'D' R&D" - meaning he wanted to see fewer ivory tower white coats and more of an emphasis on taking cutting-edge ideas and technologies out of the lab and building a real product and revenue stream around it. That process requires discipline, but it can be managed.

Microsoft isn't the first large company to face this challenge of effectively managing its R&D process. Hewlett-Packard (NYSE:HPQ) lost its way a few years ago. Pfizer (NYSE:PFE) and other "big pharma" companies are facing similar questions around their R&D activities.

Instead of patting Microsoft on the back for its continued spending on R&D, investors and the press should be asking, "Where's the beef?" The onus should be on the company's management to articulate why its status quo approach for running this function will lead to different results in the next 10 years. Otherwise, I can think of several better ways to spend the next $62 billion of cash flow.

Disclosure: At the time of publication, Jackson's fund held a long position in Microsoft.