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RIM stock leaps on BB10 optimism Add to ...

There is new optimism around Research In Motion Ltd.

The struggling smartphone maker that many on Bay Street and Wall Street assumed would collapse entirely or be sold off in parts is staging an impressive rally.

As momentum builds toward the early 2013 launch of its new BlackBerry 10 smartphones, RIM shares surged 17.3 per cent Thursday, closing at $12. The company has enjoyed a week-long burst of positive sentiment that has seen some of RIM’s harshest analyst critics speak more favourably of the stock.

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Earlier this week, Peter Misek of Jefferies & Co. doubled his price target to $10 and upgraded the stock to “hold” from “underperform.” And on Wednesday, National Bank Financial’s Kris Thompson upgraded his price target to $15, betting that the stock will rise more before a launch, likely in February, of the new BlackBerry 10 smartphone platform.

“The new management team is executing by maintaining the BlackBerry subscriber base, managing costs and cash, and seemingly readying a February 2013 BB10 global platform launch,” Mr. Thompson wrote in a research note to clients. “Most analysts were expecting a March launch.”

Although RIM has not set a hard date for BlackBerry 10’s commercial availability, the Waterloo, Ont.-based company is hosting a global launch party for two of the platform’s first devices – a full touchscreen phone and a touchscreen phone with a physical keyboard – on January 30, 2013. Most observers now predict the devices will become available to consumers in February, after multiple costly delays that have pummelled the stock and contributed to the aura of doom surrounding the company for much of the past year.

But in the most recent quarter, RIM surprised analysts by announcing its subscriber count had actually crept up a little to over 80 million global users, when almost everyone was expecting a stall in growth or the beginning of a drop-off in users as large corporate clients switched over and consumers overwhelmingly chose Apple Inc.’s iPhone and devices – mainly from Samsung Electronics – running Google Inc.’s Android software. At the same time, new CEO Thorsten Heins and his revamped management team have been executing cost cuts, implementing painful layoffs of about 5,000 employees around the world and growing a cash pile that is now about $2.3-billion.

There is still the possibility, of course, that this is a dead-cat bounce – a short-lived recovery in the middle of continuing downward pressure – which some observers have pointed out. It is also unclear whether the shift in sentiment from utterly hopeless to cautiously optimistic will last beyond the launch of BlackBerry 10, when analysts will see whether consumers walking into mobile phone shops will pick a BlackBerry 10 phone over the latest iPhone or sleek Android device. Mr. Thompson stresses that the money to be made is before the launch of the new phones, as momentum continues to build. And Mr. Misek, in his own note, said that although worst case scenarios were less likely than before, the possibility of success is still quite low.

“Preliminary results from our quarterly handset survey indicate developed market carriers have a much more positive view of BB10 than we expected,” he wrote. “With greater carrier shelf space and marketing support, we now believe BB10 has a 20 per cent to 30 per cent probability of success. While the likelihood is low ... the potential reward is high.”

Tom Astle, an analyst with Byron Capital Markets, summed up the conflicted sentiment well when he sent out a research note in early November, at the very beginning of RIM’s upswing, with the phrase: “A BUY rating on RIM? Are we raving mad?” Mr. Astle pointed out that the new BlackBerrys – which executives have been trotting out to media, carriers and analysts lately – appear to be differentiated from competitors, and that there is an “upgrade wave waiting” among the 80-million current BlackBerry users, who crave a refreshed experience rather than something entirely new.

Follow on Twitter: @iainmarlow

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