Why there are no buyers for HP’s PC biz

It was shocking enough that the world’s largest maker of personal computers wants out of the business. But also surprising was that Hewlett-Packard (s hpq) went ahead and told investors it wants out before finding a buyer. Instead, it appears the company plans to spin off the group that currently sells about 15 million PCs per quarter. So why no buyer? There’s really no one in a position to take it off HP’s hands. And that speaks volumes about the state of the personal computer business.

The candidates

In terms of size, after HP, the largest PC makers are Dell (s dell), Lenovo, Acer and Toshiba. Of the 85 million PCs sold during the most recent quarter, those companies accounted for more than 60 percent of shipments, according to Gartner (s it). Dell’s own founder and CEO has been having a grand time on Twitter at HP’s expense, so let’s assume the Round Rock guys aren’t going to come calling; not to mention they’re having their own trouble themselves selling PCs.

Lenovo already subsumed an American PC business seven years ago (IBM)(s ibm), Acer is struggling now after building up its own consumer PC business through a quick series of acquisitions several years back (Gateway, Packard Bell and E-Machines). And Toshiba’s sales are sluggish right now.

In other words, the only other major players in the business aren’t even that great at selling PCs themselves due to a transforming computer market. Over the past year, their businesses have either dropped or inched up only slightly, as consumer demand has tanked due to the economy and, as HP CEO Leo Apotheker pointed out himself last week, “the tablet effect is very real.”

The best-case scenario

The best-case scenario for selling a lot of PCs right now are companies with strong footholds in emerging markets like China (hello, Lenovo–and more recently–Apple (s aapl)), those with an in to large enterprises through huge corporate contracts or those that supply services coupled with hardware (that’s Dell, and Lenovo again). But while Lenovo in theory might be able to make it work, it’s unlikely, as many have pointed out, that the U.S. government would go for the idea of selling major U.S. assets like that to a Chinese company.

The name that’s been bandied about most with regard to who might scoop up HP’s PC arm is Samsung. The company has many parts of the PC supply chain already covered, and they are making a push with their laptop business, which could make it a good candidate. But, as Macquarie Securities research analysts point out Monday in a report, that’s also fairly unlikely:

In our view, the only possibility could be Samsung which is expanding its PC business aggressively and has a strong balance sheet. The acquisition could benefit from potential synergies – scale, branding and digital home. However, we think the probability of Samsung acquiring HP’s PC business is still very low as Korean companies have very low track record acquiring foreign companies in the past.

Rather, it’ll likely be spun off into a standalone company, but there will be plenty of disadvantages to that scenario as well, according to Macquarie. For one, the spun-off PC business would no longer benefit from extra marketing oomph from HP’s (far more profitable) printer business, or its services business. Plus, it will be a much smaller company, and that will give opportunities to current HP competitors to take some of the company’s market share, in Europe (such as Asustek and Samsung), and here in the U.S. (Lenovo).

A separate HP company selling PCs also brings a whole new set of questions that need to be tackled — who will be put in charge? How will these PCs be differentiated from any of its competitors? How will webOS be utilized? And that’s on top of a question the whole industry, or at least those not named Apple, are struggling with: how to turn a decent profit on a commoditized product like the PC.

Thumbnail courtesy of Flickr user roland