HP to absorb $8.8b loss from Autonomy acquisition after dishonest bookkeeping revealed

Hewlett-Packard will execute a massive write-down of the value of Autonomy, the British software firm it purchased last year for $10.2 billion (£6.4 billion), the company has said.

The write-down, to the tune of a whopping $8.8 billion (£5.5 billion), is the result of what HP has described as “serious accounting improprieties, disclosure failures and outright misrepresentations at Autonomy Corporation PLC.”

HP CEO Meg Whitman revealed in a conference call with analysts that the dishonest accounting moves were revealed by a senior Autonomy manager, who came clean after the May departure of Autonomy founder Mike Lynch. An internal HP probe was followed by a third party investigation, which confirmed the accusations that Autonomy had misrepresented both its history and its business prospects in the lead-up to the acquisition.

Though HP has not used the word ‘fraud’, the company has filed a complaint with UK law enforcement and with the US Securities and Exchange Commission. Whitman said she supports criminal charges being levied against Autonomy by those authorities, and said HP would likely launch a civil suit against the firm in an effort to redress some of the resulting shareholder losses. Lynch, for instance, made $800 million (£502 million) off the deal.

Unsurprisingly, the news has sent HP’s already poorly performing stock plummeting further, down by 11 per cent to $11.85 (£7.4) per share. The firm will also have to swallow yet another huge quarterly loss, this time in the amount of $6.9 billion (£4.3 billion).

HP purchased the Cambridge-founded firm, which specialises in enterprise software technology like database search and processing, in a cash deal worth 58 per cent more than the company’s share price at the time. The multi-billion dollar deal was the largest IT takeover in European history and the world’s second-largest for a software acquisition. Accordingly, it was expected to net HP a stronger foothold in the enterprise search market.

At the time, Whitman, who finalised the deal but did not broker it, told analysts that she was “really excited” about integrating Autonomy into HP’s enterprise arm, despite some analysts’ concern that the deal’s price grossly overvalued the company.

But while HP saw declines in its printing and server department revenues, its software unit increased sales by 14 per cent - the only growth across its business. The Autonomy gaffe aside, that revelation validates the firm’s strategy of focusing on software in the business and government spheres, where profit margins are considerably higher than those in the consumer hardware markets. It also justifies Whitman’s insistence that the firm remains committed to Autonomy, which she described as having “industry-leading technology.”

Earlier this year, HP absorbed an $8.9 billion (£5.6 billion) loss for the acquisition of technology consulting service Electronic Data Systems, which it purchased for $13 billion (£8.1 billion) 2009. The firm revealed in August that the fruits of that takeover were not as profitable as expected.