The chief executive of International Business Machines Corp. said today that he believes recent public statements by the Reagan administration's new antitrust chief indicate the possibility of a major review of the government's antitrust suit against the computer giant.
Responding to questions after the close of the company's annual stockholders meeting here, IBM President John R. Opel said that his reading of statements by William Baxter, new assistant attorney general for antitrust, has given the company hope that the 12-year-old case might be resolved.
"Mr. Baxter is very new and has made some public statements that are somewhat encouraging," Opel said. "It appears to us that he thinks there is reason to review its status and agressively pursue" some type of settlement.
Thomas Barr, IBM's lead counsel in the case, said in an interview before the meeting that the company is willing to discuss with government representatives settling the case "any time, any place . . . we've been trying to do something with the government for 10 years."
The comments of the IBM spokesmen followed by a few days remarks by the federal judge hearing the six-year-old trial, urging both sides to attempt to settle the matter before he faces reaching a decision.
It is likely that the case will go to U.S. District Court Judge David Edelstein later this year for a verdict. If the government is successful in proving the antitrust violations alleged in the suit, a new phase of the case will begin in which Edelstein will consider the government's request to break up IBM.
IBM ranks second among industrial corporations in net income, and the company's size and worldwide scope would make any divestiture plan the most complex reorganization of a private company ever ordered by a judge.
The company also is faced with a unique foreign antitrust problem posed by the December filing of a "statement of objections" by the Commission of European Communities, the European economic group, which is seeking changes in IBM business practices within the Common Market. The company must respond to those charges by July 15, Barr said.
Barr called the case "a potential explosion" and charged that the European group is "doing exactly what European governmnets have tried to prevent the U.S. from doing." Opel said the lawsuits "belong in the past decade," and said the European action "is one more recital" of a "myth" that IBM's practices are anticompetitive.
"It's instructive that many of these complaints find their origin in American firms and often track word for word with the charges brought against us in U.S. suits that were resolved," Opel told the stockholders. "So we are optimistic that our pattern of victory and exoneration will continue."
In remarks to more than 1,100 IBM stockholders this morning, Opel noted that the company, ranked eighth overall in Fortune magazine's list of the 500 largest industrial corporations in the United States, has maintained its second spot in net earnings, below Exxon Corp., since 1970. IBM reported profits of $3.56 billion in 1980 compared with $3.01 billion for 1979.
Nevertheless, one stockholder complained that before-tax income has not kept pace with climbing capital expenditures.
Responding to that question, Opel -- running his first IBM stockholders meeting after succeeding Frank Cary as IBM chief executive Jan. 1 -- said the company would "moderate" its capital investment program in about 1982. Last year IBM spent $6.6 billion on capital expenditures.
IBM, with its focus on business-data-processing markets, has been slower than some of its competitors in the booming retail personal-computer market, although Opel said the company has a "very, very deep interest in it . . . That's about all I can say."