这同样也不是投资者第一次流露出这样的念头。今年年初，绿灯资本公司（Greenlight Capital）的维权投资人大卫•艾因霍恩曾公开表示，现任CEO史蒂夫•鲍尔默是拖累公司股价下跌的因素之一，从而引发了盖茨有可能回归的传闻。但在公开场合，盖茨对此的反应一直都很冷淡，并早在2010年的时候就曾予以驳斥。今年6月份，他在接受《每日邮报》（Daily Mail）采访时再次表示，比尔和梅林达•盖茨基金会（Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation）“是我现在的工作”（艾因霍恩拒绝接受本文作者的采访）。
盖茨能否推动微软停滞不前的股价？有这种可能。CEO的人事变动往往会促使公司股价出现跨跃式改善，位于西雅图市的华盛顿大学福斯特商学院（Foster School of Business）院长、金融学教授加拉德•哈福德这样说道。哈福德认为，甚至在新的CEO真正接掌公司之前，投资者就预先判定管理层的更迭将提升公司股价（大约在一年以后，投资者就需要看到新上任的CEO留下的印记）。“史蒂夫•鲍尔默让许多投资者倍感失望，”里昂证券亚太市场部(CLSA Asia-Pacific Markets）的埃德•马奎尔补充说。“有些不满情绪是有道理的，有些或许没有。但肯定有一种看法认为，鲍尔默需要为公司股价的表现不佳负责。”
Is Bill Gates mulling a comeback to the iconic company he founded?
It wouldn't be the first time a legendary founder stepped back into the fray to right his faltering company. Perhaps Gates has noticed the success of his Seattle neighbor Howard Schultz, who returned to a badly bruised Starbucks (SBUX) only to help it surge. (Schultz was Fortune's 2011 Businessperson of the Year.) Michael Dell, Steve Jobs and Larry Page all pulled similar maneuvers.
It wouldn't be the first time investors had flirted with the notion, either. Early this year, activist investor David Einhorn of Greenlight Capital publicly called current CEO Steve Ballmer a weight dragging down the company's share price, prompting the rumor that Gates might return. But Gates has been cool to the idea publicly, rebuffing it in 2010 and again this year in June, when he told the Daily Mail his work at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation "is my job now." (Einhorn declined to comment for this story.)
One prominent chief executive told Fortune he'd heard from someone close to Gates that he might be considering such a move. Aside from an unexpected and bold final act for Gates, what could Microsoft (MSFT) gain from such a move?
The company's stock price has been a thorn in Ballmer's side for a decade. At the end of 1999, Microsoft's best year for market price, shares were at almost $60. When Ballmer took over as chief executive in January 2000, the stock was still over $50. With the burst of the tech bubble, Microsoft's stock dropped steeply and hovered around $25 area through much of the decade, excepting a short rally above $35 in late-2007 and a dip under $20 during the 2008 financial crisis. Ballmer dumped much of his stock during the decade and Bill Gates gradually left daily operations. (Gates' last full day was in June 2008.) During that time, the stock stayed flat as competitors such as Oracle (ORCL) and Apple (AAPL) saw huge gains in their share price.
Could Gates goose the moribund stock price? Possibly. Any CEO turnover tends to jumpstart improvement in a company's stock price, says Jarrad Harford, finance professor and chair at the University of Washington's Foster School of Business in Seattle. According to Harford, investors anticipate the company's value under new management even before the executive actually takes over. (New CEOs have about a year before his or her imprint needs to be visible to investors.) "There's a lot of frustration among investors with Steve Ballmer," adds Ed Maguire of CLSA Asia-Pacific Markets. "Some is merited, some may not be. But there's certainly a perception that Ballmer is responsible for the under-performance of the stock."
Then there's the effect a founder can have on the troops. Founders are generally free to execute their vision with added "gravitas," Harford argues. He points to Google (GOOG), where co-founder and again-CEO Larry Page is "cutting through the organizational muck" to restore the company's momentum. Ballmer might lack that incisive big-picture vision, says Maguire at CLSA. "You don't have the benevolent dictator," he notes, adding that while Ballmer handles the active management of myriad divisions and thousands of employees well, he's missing some of the messaging of a Jobs or Gates.