Financing IT: Repo Man in the Data Center
IBM's Power to Lend Billions
IBM's Global Financing is the largest IT lender in the world, with 125,000 customers and roughly $34 billion in assets. According to Clarke, the division delivers between 9 percent to 13 percent of IBM's overall profitability. The division was "created to push IBM hardware," he adds, "the mainframes, the big servers that cost a lot of money." Global Financing also resells off-lease or retired equipment, as well as any gear that is repossessed because a customer defaults and "where we can't work out a deal," Clarke says. In either case, IBM employees or third-party partners physically take back the equipment, load it on trucks and bring it to one of IBM's 22 refurbishment centers located around the world. "That, by itself, gives us the ability to offset our credit risk in the event that a customer defaults on hardware," Clarke says.
As to the IBM software that typically is bundled in an IBM "solutions" deal, Clarke admits that "it's a bit riskier" than the hardware loans, but "we adjust for that risk based on the interest rates we charge."
Clarke stresses that IBM has "a very, very conservative approach to lending. We don't allow ourselves to lend to anyone and everyone," he says. "And that's why we've been untouched by all the different ups and downs" over the years.
The Microsoft Financing business accounts for less than 1 percent of Microsoft's total company revenue, according to the company. (Microsoft wouldn't comment on its financing partners' default rates. Oracle Financing public relations declined to be interviewed for this story.)
IBM Global Financing's default rate, according to its most recent third-quarter earnings report, increased from 1.1 percent to 1.3 percent. In Q3 earnings remarks, IBM CFO Mark Loughridge said that we "we closely monitor the credit of our clients-and adjust as needed. It's important to remember that the majority of the assets we're talking about are in support of critical IT operations and have substantial value."
Forrester Research principal analyst Ray Wang says that defaults on technology loans historically haven't been too big a problem for vendors that offer financing options. IBM's Clarke says that "this is not an everyday occurrence for IBM."
But with software, especially, it can be tricky business. "That's been the toughest part of software financing: there's nothing to put as collateral. What's the collateralization mechanism?" Wang says. "And this is why traditional software financing is a specialized field."
Even with economic uncertainties and credit turmoil still unfolding, IBM's Clarke says the financing division has seen a noticeable uptick in customer inquiries about financing options. "We are being more prudent in how we're lending, and we are definitely looking at credit quality of the customer set, which is something that we've always done," Clarke says. "But we have money to lend."