Nuance (NUAN) is takeover bait. Based on results, you shouldn't wouldn't call it a buy otherwise. The company has lost money two of the last four quarters, and three of the last four years. So what's behind its amazing PE multiple of 214? Patents. And takeover talk.
When I first looked at the company two months ago (when it was selling around $22/share, compared with the current $25.30) I noted that it had both a text-to-speech opportunity in Dragon and a keyboarding interface in Swype. (You may hve seen ads for Dragon on TV lately.) Now it has gotten something better in the first instance, buying Vlingo.
So who might buy? Here is a short list, in order of likeliness from very likely to much less likely:
Microsoft (MSFT) would be the most obvious buyer. The medical side could be folded into its joint-venture with GE, Swype and the speaking interface could help Windows Phone (or combine with Kinect to form the start of a real robotics division) and even if you assume a 24% premium on the takeover the price is a snip, $10 billion.
Google (GOOG) might consider this more of a defensive play. The intellectual property would help it in court against any suits over Siri, Swype would look great in the Android ecosystem, and the scanning systems might let it make more money from Google Docs. Both its key technologies would look very nice in a Motorola MMI phone. Whether its current business models – selling shrink-wrap software and corporate licenses – is compatible with what Google does is a question.
IBM (IBM) could handle those Nuance business models, and the two companies are already close. IBM has a nice niche itself in medical computing, which Nuance interfaces could help with. An IBM hook-up makes sense from a corporate culture standpoint and good sense from a business computing standpoint.
Apple (AAPL) doesn't really need Nuance, but the patents could help it in its ongoing holy war aimed at Android. I think this is a very unlikely scenario, but you never know. Maybe CEO Tim Cook wants to make a statement.
Samsung (GM:SSNLF) could build Nuance technology directly into mobile chips, and could use the patent rights against Apple. The trouble here is you're looking at a Korean purchaser with little play in Nuance's current niches.
Oracle (ORCL) could use something sexy to sell applications off its Sun servers, and again the patents might be valuable in any court action. I consider this also very unlikely, but CEO Larry Ellison has proven willing to make buys aimed at stopping others rather than moving ahead himsle, so if the bidding gets intense you never know.
Rising markets and rising legal challenges both make M&A based solely on patent rights a solid trend to buy in 2012. This is an easy way, although, if no one comes calling, it is very hard to justify even NUAN's current price.