BlackBerry hardware is losing RIM money

Research In Motion Ltd likely lost money on sales of its BlackBerry smartphones and PlayBook tablet computers in the fiscal year just ended, an analyst said on Tuesday after studying the company’s latest data.

Gross margins on such hardware items fell to 20 percent in the fiscal year that ended in early March from 36 percent a year earlier, RIM said in an annual filing to U.S. regulators that was posted on its website.

Peter Misek, an analyst at investment banking firm Jefferies, calculated in a note to clients that after assigning operating costs and including inventory charges, the hardware division likely spent 4 percent more than it took in.

RIM has written down the value of its product inventory in its last two quarters, and Misek expects another write-down by the end of RIM’s fiscal second quarter on September 1.

RIM declined to comment beyond what it said in its filing.

The Canadian smartphone company has delayed the launch of what many analysts consider its make-or-break BlackBerry 10 phones, which will incorporate a new operating system, until late in the year. Meanwhile, it is spending heavily to encourage users to upgrade to its legacy BlackBerry 7 devices, an effort the company says will exert further pressure on hardware margins this year.

“The other key thing from this is that it’s not likely to get better anytime soon, because until BB 10 devices are out they’re going to have to keep cutting prices,” Misek said in a telephone interview.

Several investors and analysts have called for RIM to split its hardware business from its more profitable services unit, which charges carriers a monthly fee for access to the company’s proprietary network, which encrypts and compresses data.

Chief Executive Thorsten Heins, who took the reins in January when longtime co-CEOs Mike Lazaridis and Jim Balsillie resigned under pressure, said last month that he was reviewing strategic options, such as partnerships, joint ventures or licensing of RIM’s software. He did not rule out a sale.

“This losing money is probably the reason Thorsten initiated the strategic review,” Misek said.

The company posted a fourth-quarter loss late last month, its first quarterly loss in seven years, as sales of its BlackBerry range slumped. It said it would no longer issue financial forecasts.

RIM’s shares were down 3 percent at midday on Tuesday at $12.64 on the Nasdaq, and were down 2.2 percent at C$12.68 on the Toronto Stock Exchange. They have lost 80 percent of their value since a peak near $70 in February last year.

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BlackBerry hardware is losing RIM money