PREVIEW-BlackBerry maker's cash burn emerges as pressing concern

Mon Jun 25, 2012 11:53pm IST

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* Operating loss, third straight writedown expected

* Cash balance key in distressed situation - analysts

* Adj loss per share seen at 8 cents on revenue of $3.15 bln - poll

* RIM results due after market close on Thursday, June 28

By Alastair Sharp

TORONTO, June 25 (Reuters) - While Research In Motion Ltd RIM.TO focuses on the make-or-break launch of its next-generation BlackBerrys later this year, a more immediate question for the embattled company is whether its cash can hold out until the new phones finally hit the market.

RIM has already told investors to expect an operating loss when it releases fiscal first-quarter results on Thursday. With that in mind, the focus is now squarely on whether RIM, by reining in costs, mostly through job cuts, can buy enough time to get its shiny new smartphones into the hands of consumers.

"All I care about is cash. This is a distressed situation so focus should be on cash," said Matthew Thornton, an analyst at Avian Securities in Boston.

"If they’re not cutting operating costs fast enough, then cash can drop off very quickly, and that’s going to have implications for the stock and the valuation," he said.

RIM has no debt and roughly $4 a share of cash and investments, a cash pile Thorsten Heins, the company's new chief executive, has said will increase this quarter. But bankers say RIM could blow through that $2.1 billion very quickly trying to right the ship.

If cash dwindles to the point where operations suffer, analysts say RIM may have to take on debt at unfavorable terms or issue dilutive stock at a discount to its already low price. Such scenarios would only heighten the sense that RIM's very survival hangs in the balance.

The stock is hovering at eight-year lows around $10, little more than double what the company earned per share in its last fiscal year and a fraction of the glory days near $150 in 2008.

STAKES ARE HIGH

Investors are also hoping that RIM will provide a more specific timeline for launching the new BlackBerry 10 lineup, still considered the company's only long-term hope for a turnaround.

They also want to hear that a popular hand-set maker such as Samsung Electronics Co Ltd (005930.KS) is looking to license RIM software.

That's one of the potential goals of an ongoing strategic review being conducted for RIM by J.P. Morgan Securities LLC and RBC Capital Markets. The bankers are assessing potential licensing and partnership opportunities and questioning whether RIM should be broken up or sold.

The stakes could not be higher for RIM, which in a few short years has fallen from being the leader in smartphones to an also-ran with uninspiring products, delayed launches, service outages and other embarrassments.

“It’s a very tragic story. This company was a powerhouse and they squandered it,” said Shaw Wu, an analyst at Sterne Agee in San Francisco. "Right now it’s about staying alive, it’s about survival."

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Starmine data on RIM: link.reuters.com/teg98s

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The Canadian company's troubles - and its decision to hire bankers earlier this year - have fueled rampant takeover speculation as its shares plumb fresh depths.

That said, RIM is not likely on Thursday to discuss a sale, which sources close to the company have said is unlikely in the short term.

But that hasn't stopped the speculation. The Sunday Times of London wrote this week that RIM was looking to split its hardware business from its messaging network business. It pointed to Amazon.com Inc (AMZN.O) and Facebook Inc (FB.O) as potential buyers for the hardware business, without naming any sources.

The paper also suggested RIM could sell a stake in the entire company to a larger company such as Microsoft Corp (MSFT.O).

But sources close to the matter have told Reuters there is little interest in RIM's handset business and that potential suitors are in no rush to make RIM an offer while its value continues to slide.

OPERATING LOSS

In late May, RIM warned it would report an operating loss for the first time in eight years as global BlackBerry sales hit a wall and subscribers have dwindled in the United States.

On Thursday, RIM is expected to post an adjusted loss of 8 cents a share in the three months to June 2, according to the average estimate of 37 analysts polled by Reuters. Revenue is expected to come in at $3.15 billion, a 35 percent decline from a year earlier.

It would mark the fourth time in five quarters that revenue has tumbled, bringing it back to levels last seen three years ago. In the last two quarters, RIM has written down the value of inventory it is struggling to move. Another writedown is widely expected.

The new CEO Heins has staked the company's future on Blackberry 10. With an all-new operating system, it is designed as RIM's answer to Apple Inc's (AAPL.O) iPhone and a range of devices using Google Inc's (GOOG.O) Android software.

The launch is not expected until October at the earliest. Initially, it will be a touchscreen-only gadget, while versions with its famous physical keypad will follow, likely by early in 2013.

It will take several more quarters before the BlackBerry 10 could be judged a success or failure, and RIM is expected to shrink sharply in the meantime.

"They need to align their cost structure to accept the new reality" of much lower revenue, said Sterne Agee's Wu, who questioned whether RIM should be focusing so much on the BlackBerry 10 launch.

RIM plans to cut costs by $1 billion by early next year, in part by slashing its workforce for a second time in a year. It has already cut loose one of its manufacturers as it moves to clear out inefficiency in its supply chain and operations.

RIM has said it will cut a "significant" number of jobs, without providing more specifics, and will soon part ways with Celestica Inc (CLS.TO) as it consolidates manufacturing orders with its two biggest suppliers, Jabil Circuit Inc (JBL.N) and Flextronics International Ltd (FLEX.O).

Two sources close to RIM told Reuters last month that the company plans to employ around 10,000 people by early next year from 16,500 currently, with job cuts lined up across legal, marketing, sales, operations, and human resources divisions.

But severance packages also weigh on the balance sheet. And while RIM can trim costs and pressure retailers to settle their accounts to improve its bottom line, it can't expand its revenue without convincing people to buy its products, said Colin Gillis from BGC Partners in New York.

"Can you remove expenses faster than revenue decelerates?" Gillis said. "And is that the right thing to do? If you have a shot with (BlackBerry) 10 maybe you burn some cash. This is not the time to be focusing on profit.”

(Editing by Frank McGurty and Gunna Dickson)

((alastair.sharp@reuters.com)(+1 416 941 8118)(Twitter: @5thEstate)) Keywords: RIM RESULTS/

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