Hedge Fund Tycoon Calls for Ballmer to Exit Microsoft

Billionaire hedge fund tycoon David Einhorn called for Steve Ballmer’s ouster from Microsoft Thursday. Speaking at the annual Ira Sohn Investment Research Conference in New York, Mr. Einhorn said that Microsoft had wasted money in some of its business acquisitions, allowed Apple to steal a competitive lead, and that Mr. Ballmer himself was “stuck in the past.”

Steve Ballmer showing off HP's Slate tablet

Steve Ballmer showing off HP’s Slate tablet during CES 2010

If you don’t follow Wall Street, you can be forgiven for asking why you should care what some billionaire has to say about who runs Microsoft, but Mr. Einhorn has grown rich from what sometime seem to be prescient investments and predictions, and his opinion carriers enough weights to have helped push shares in Microsoft higher by 1.98% Thursday after he made his comments.

Mr. Einhorn’s fund, Greenlight Capital, made billions by shorting Lehman Brothers before the onset of the financial crisis that was eventually kicked off with the collapse of the same Lehman Brothers. In December of 2010, he invested heavily in Sprint because of that company’s spectrum holdings. Since then, shares in Sprint are up about 40% (note that this reporter holds up a small stake in Sprint picked up after Mr. Einhorn made his comments).

Other seemingly prescient moves include being long on Apple. In July of 2010, his firm bought millions of shares at an average price of US$248 per share, and the stock closed Thursday at $335 per share.

The long and the short of it is that there are people that pay attention to what Mr. Einhorn does and says about his investments. Whether or not that will include Microsoft’s shareholders remains to be seen.

Mr. Einhorn is one of those shareholders, too. Greenlight Capital has a $230 million stake in MSFT, owning approximately 0.11% of the company, according to The Guardian. He is still bullish on the company, stating that he believes the company is trading at a discount, but he called for changes starting at the top.

The crux of his argument is that Microsoft has missed many opportunities under Mr. Ballmer’s tenure. To compound the error, according to the investor, once Microsoft had missed those opportunities, it then wasted billions of dollars in resources trying to R&D its way into catching up.

“[Mr. Ballmer] has allowed competitors to beat Microsoft in huge areas, including search,” the analyst said. “Even worse, his response to these failures has been to pour tremendous resources into efforts to develop his way out of these holes.”

He called Bing a “sinkhole,” noting that Microsoft’s online services business lost $700 million last quarter, and he criticized Mr. Ballmer’s dismissal of the iPhone or iPod as a threat to Microsoft. He also criticized Mr. Ballmer’s decision to forbid his children from using Google or iPods, saying the move demonstrated that Mr. Ballmer was out of touch.

He went so far as to describe Mr. Ballmer’s leadership of what used to be the world’s biggest technology company (by valuation) as “Charlie Brown management.”

Steve Ballmer took over the helm of Microsoft in 2000, after Bill Gates resigned from the position to become Chief Software Architect and Chairman of the Board. Since then, Mr. Gates has devoted increasing amounts of his energy and focus to his foundation, The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, and Microsoft’s stock has largely languished.

Shares in MSFT ended the day at $24.67, up $0.480 (+1.98%), on heavy volume of 78 million shares trading hands. In calendar 2011, the stock has fallen 5.2%, counting today’s gains.