Stocking Up on HPC

By Michael Feldman

September 30, 2008

The stock market’s recent volatility is giving some publicly traded HPC companies an interesting ride. Tech stocks in general, like the rest of the market, have been taking a beating lately as economic uncertainty and the lack of political direction has investors scrambling. But as pointed out by Joe Landman at scalability.org (via a heads up by compadre John West at insideHPC), at least a couple of HPC companies are bucking the trend.

Over the past couple of weeks, both SGI and Cray are climbing the charts, while other tech stocks like Google and Intel have shed more than 10 percent of their value. Is this just HPC beating the spread?

The recent spike in Cray stock — from a 3-month low of $4.36/share on July 14 to a 3-month high of $6.27 on September 18 — could easily be attributed to the excitement about the company’s new CX1 personal supercomputer, the first Intel-Microsoft-Cray offering. As I write this, Cray stock is sitting at about $5.00/share, which is about the average price for the year.

SGI is the real puzzler. In the space of a week and a half (September 15-26), its stock shot from $4.98/share to $11.94/share. But SGI financials are uninspiring. In the latest fiscal quarter, they lost $35 million, its 8th straight quarter of red ink dating back to 2007. So what’s up with the stock?

As Landman suggested, investors might just be parking their money in certain tech stocks as they flee the financial sector. Maybe SGI’s stock looked attractive because investors (or more likely, their investment algorithms) figured the low share price indicated less downside risk. Also, SGI is probably less exposed to an across-the-board economic downturn than other tech firms since it has a large share of government customers like NASA.

But I hesitate to over-analyze stock behavior in our little corner of the world. Given current market conditions, it’s probably easier to explain share prices with chaos theory than as a result of rational investor behavior. Even in more settled times, it’s hard to find much independent financial analysis of HPC companies. (And when I say HPC companies, I’m talking about businesses whose primary revenue stream is from high performance computing or technical computing customers. There is really just a handful: Cray, SGI, Mellanox, Isilon, Voltaire, ANSYS, and maybe a few others.) The gang at Motley Fool will occasionally offer their two cents about Cray, but systematic analysis of publicly traded HPC firms is not to be found.

Eric Savitz’s recent article in Barron’s Tech Trader Daily about the financial goings-on at SGI reflects some of the challenges to would-be HPC investors. “Silicon Graphics reports some of the most complicated financial statements you will ever read; their latest quarter release is 26 pages long. Combine that with the fact that there are no analysts publishing on the stock and you have a set of results that are not easy to interpret.”

Even when the financial wizards focus their attention, HPC can be tough nut to crack. A couple of years ago, Lehman Brothers contacted me, looking for some information about Linux Networx. Both firms went belly up this year, but in 2006, Lehman was flush with cash, while Linux Networx was reporting double-digit revenue growth and looking for investors to feed that growth. While I couldn’t give Lehman specific guidance on the company’s prospects, I did bring up the competitive realities of the HPC cluster computing market. I assume Lehman followed up with its own due diligence.

Along with a couple of other partners, in September 2006 Lehman ended up investing $37 million in Linux Networx, and in the press release provided this quote: “Linux Networx has extensive supercomputing experience and a strong market position making it a highly attractive investment opportunity,” said Eric Salzman of Lehman Brothers’ Global Trading Strategies Group. “We look forward to working with the Linux Networx team to build a dominant company in the supercomputing industry.”

Alas.

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