Meg Whitman’s Hewlett-Packard tried to put the debacle of its Autonomy acquisition behind it last week by taking an $8.8 billion write-off, charging that previous management had been misled by cooked books and other nefarious deeds on the part of the UK-based software automation company. The claims have turned into yet another public relations spectacle for the Palo Alto-based company as Autonomy founder and former CEO Mike Lynch fights back with fire and feist, and pundits again point fingers at HP’s management, board and outside advisers for ineptitude.
Meanwhile, a class action suit filed in San Francisco yesterday “alleged that HP had issued false and misleading statements on its financial performance and prospects between August 2011, when the $11 billion Autonomy deal was announced, and November 20 this year,” when the write down was made public, as Chris Nuttall reports in the Financial Times.
The civil action was not unexpected, and more lawsuits may follow. “It’s hard to imagine that this deal goes so far south so quickly without somebody having culpability,” Labaton Sucharow partner Dominic Auld tells Nuttall while disclosing that his firm is considering action of its own.
Whitman, now HP president and CEO but only a yea-voting member of the HP board at the time of the acquisition, effectively blames her predecessor, Leo Apotheker, and the former chief strategy officer, Shane Robison, for the bad deal.
"To put it bluntly ... this story has been an unmitigated train wreck, and it seems every time management speaks to the Street, there is new negative incremental information forthcoming," ISI Group analyst Brian Marshall told Reuters’ Poornima Gupta and Nicola Leske when the write-off was announced.
The Wall Street Journal’s “Heard on the Street” columnist, Rolfe Winkler, offers a scathing appraisal of the situation this morning, pointing out in his lede that “more than two people from Hewlett-Packard were responsible for the disastrous Autonomy acquisition, never mind what chief executive Meg Whitman says.” He names names, from current CFO Cathie Lesjak to current board chairman Raymond J. Lane. But although investors might like to see “more heads roll,” that may not be a prudent response.
“The sad reality,” Winkler concludes, “may be that the company is in such bad shape that it can't afford more turnover at the top. Until it can, investors should stay away from the shares, no matter how cheap they appear.”
And as Reuters’ Nadia Damouni and Nicola Leske pointed out last week, “15 different financial, legal and accounting firms were involved in the transaction -- and none raised a flag about what HP said Tuesday was a major accounting fraud.”
Meanwhile, Lynch, who in 1991 played a hunch that the “theories of the then-little-known 18th-century Presbyterian minister and mathematician Thomas Bayes could be used to search and understand unstructured data,” as Wendy M. Grossman relates in The Guardian, has been vigorously pushing back against HP’s charges.
“Lynch has been unusually candid and vocal in defending himself and the company he built, rather than hiding out behind a phalanx of lawyers as might be expected,” the New York Times’ Quentin Hardy writes. “He says he was blindsided by a long-prepared public relations onslaught by HP, little of which had to do with the substance of its claims about Autonomy.”
Lynch is not limiting himself to denying the accusations. Among his charges In an interview with Business Insider’s Julie Bort: HP executives engineered the ouster of Apotheker and appointment of Whitman because they “feared Apotheker's plan to spin off the hardware business in favor of software,” which caused Whitman “to abandon the software strategy, which left Autonomy and Lynch in the lurch.” And to top it off, “HP's convoluted bureaucracy created situations where its own salespeople couldn't sell Autonomy.”
If all these convolutions have you scratching your head, Reuters’ “Breakingviews” columnist, Quentin Webb, delves into such accounting procedures as “Vendor Specific Objective Evidence” (VSOE), which allows companies “to book upfront payments in full if they establish a predictable pricing framework,” in a “Guide for the Perplexed” piece.
“As things stand, HP’s accusations are hard to judge,” Webb writes, pointing out that it still “has to prove its claim that it was duped by fraud which could not be detected before acquisition.”
The market makes its own judgments, of course.
“As HP’s reputation as the company that cannot shoot straight has grown to almost legendary proportions, its stock price has collapsed,” Richard Waters and Chris Nuttall wrote in the Financial Times Friday evening. It was up 2.4% yesterday to $12.74, but was trading in the $50 range as recently as April 2010.