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A Happy Ending for Microsoft Investors?

I've also got a buy: Acacia Research, a little outfit that makes money by protecting patents.

A good friend who reads this column regularly clucked at me the other day: "This is nothing like any other investing column I've ever read. You're always talking about your mistakes." It's fine to be humble, he said, but don't be so self-deprecating that you make readers question your credibility.

I mention this now because I was about to continue discussing the stories in my “Practical Investing” portfolio and was, naturally, going to focus on the disappointments rather than the successes. So in the interest of maintaining my credibility, I'll say quickly that the portfolio is doing fine—it's up about 19%, which is neck and neck with my benchmark (all returns and prices are through March 7). My best performers are Seagate Technology (symbol STX), up 44%; KKR Financial (KFN), up 54%; American Capital (ACAS), up 62%; and Spirit Airlines (SAVE), up 67%.

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My latest buy. With the proceeds of my sales of Lockheed Martin and PPL Corp. (see Practical Investing), I spent $10,024 on February 7 to buy 366 shares of Acacia Research (ACTG). Acacia is a little Newport Beach, Cal., outfit I recommended in 6 Great Stocks You've Never Heard Of. It makes money by protecting patents. The company gets a piece of settlements and litigation judgments in patent suits, and that means its revenue stream—and its stock—can be erratic. But earnings nearly tripled last year, and the company is rapidly acquiring more patents, which could keep double-digit profit gains coming for a long time. The stock is up about 4% since I bought it.

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With that housekeeping out of the way, I will now move on to the sad story of Microsoft (MSFT), which I bought in December 2011. The software giant's shares have been dead in the water since 1999, when they reached $59. When the tech bubble burst, the shares deflated to about half their value and then, like Sleeping Beauty, fell into a deep sleep for many long years, even as Microsoft's earnings nearly quintupled. The stock now trades at $28.

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Happy ending? The tale that persuaded me that Microsoft might soon emerge from its slumber developed over the past two years, as I noticed a growing crowd of value managers buying its shares. They were also expressing impatience with CEO Steve Ballmer, who took the helm in 2000—just in time for Microsoft's long nap. Greenlight Capital's David Einhorn, for example, began calling for Ballmer's ouster in May 2011. The time for action seemed nigh, but one thing gave the agitators pause: Microsoft was about to introduce the Windows 8 operating system and a new tablet computer.

Both Windows 8 and the Surface tablet arrived late last year. Their sales haven't awakened the stock price, but at least the Surface seems to be gaining momentum. In my view, either these new products will reinvigorate Microsoft's sales in the next six months and boost the stock, or the board of directors will face growing pressure to do something to goose shareholder value.

Microsoft has many options, including sacking Ballmer. But my favorite plotline involves some sort of restructuring scenario in which Microsoft is divided into as many as four companies, one of which Ballmer could lead. Spinoffs can benefit investors because managers of the cast-off companies can sharpen their focus on—and be held responsible for—just one thing. Breakups make a lot of sense when a company holds widely disparate businesses, such as Microsoft's entertainment unit (Xbox) and its operating-software business (Windows). Of course, it's up to management and the board to develop the actual plotline, but they'd be unwise to twiddle their thumbs much longer.

Kathy Kristof is a contributing editor to Kiplinger's Personal Finance and author of the book Investing 101. You can see her portfolio at kiplinger.com/links/practicalportfolio.

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