Semiconductor Stock Outlook - Sep/Oct 2013

by Sejuti Banerjea

September 26, 2013 |

The Semiconductor Industry serves as a driver, enabler and indicator of technological progress. Developments in the industry determine the way we work, transport ourselves, communicate, entertain ourselves and respond to our environment. The PCs we work on, the cars we drive, the phones we communicate with, the electronic gadgets on which we watch movies, listen to music and play games on, and the planes and weapons used to transport or protect us use semiconductor devices.

As environmental issues have become more of a concern today, semiconductor devices are being made to reduce power consumption, reduce heat dissipation, capture solar energy, create more efficient lighting solutions and so forth.

The past decade has seen big changes in the industry, with most players streamlining operations and transferring more routine production to low-cost locations. This led to the development of the Asian market, where most memory production and backend operations have shifted.

However, since innovation remains largely within the country, the sector is one of the biggest employers of labor, with a corresponding significant impact on the overall economy.

End Market Perspective

Traditionally, the consumer and computing markets have been the most significant drivers of semiconductor demand. These two markets together remain the most important, but because of the gradual convergence of functionalities, it is growing increasingly difficult to identify which devices are computing and which consumer. Semiconductors are spurring this change, facilitating the convergence.

The PC market will decline this year and will remain in the doldrums for a couple more years. This softness will however be more than made up by growth in mobile devices, particularly tablets and smartphones. A lot of the growth in the next few years will come from price-sensitive emerging markets, which is an added negative.

Innovation in the mobile segment depends on the ability of semiconductors to provide greater functionality and better experience at higher speeds and consuming less power.

ARM Holdings (ARMH - Snapshot Report) is a significant beneficiary of the trend favoring mobile computing, since its simpler processor architecture consumes less power. As a result, companies like Qualcomm, Texas Instruments and others have based their products on ARM cores. Intel appears to have fallen behind in the race, but its recently-announced Bay Trail processor based on the Silvermont microarchitecture could make up for lost time.

At the same time, dumber terminals mean increasing demand for cloud services, which is pushing demand for servers and data centers and thereby helping Intel, which is the dominant player in the segment. While ARM is likely to enter this turf just like Intel is entering mobile, Intel’s position is far stronger here.

Other than tablets, the consumer electronics market also includes gadgets like LCD TVs, Blu-ray players and smartphones.

The Consumer Electronics Association ("CEA") expects global consumer electronics sales to be up 2.7% this year, following better-than-expected performance in 2012. Tablet units (up 45% from 2012), smartphone units (up 17%), notebooks (up 53%) are expected to be the strongest drivers. Other areas of strength include 3D-enabled displays (39%), networked-enabled TVs (34%) digital imaging 22% and set top boxes 13%.

The wireless infrastructure segment of the communications market has been stronger than the wireline segment in the last few years. This segment is expected to remain strong, with Ericsson, Huawei, Alcatel-Lucent and Nokia Siemens remaining in control. Increasing data volumes across the world and infrastructure build-outs to support these volumes and deal with connectivity issues (network congestion, power reliability, privacy and security) will continue to drive semiconductor sales.

In addition, enterprise and data center networks are undergoing a huge change because of greater demand for data storage, security and privacy (cloud computing, Internet of Things).  This should generate significant demand for semiconductors over the next few years.

New concepts like software defined networking (SDN) are based on more intelligent network control and are therefore new markets for semiconductors. Spending on smart grids and intelligent metering applications is expected to see particularly strong growth (19% CAGR through 2016 according to IC Insights).

The automotive end market has been growing in importance, as the consumption of electronic components for safety, infotainment, navigation and fuel efficiency continues to increase. As a result, semiconductors serving this market should grow stronger than the industry over the next few years.

Industrial consumption of semiconductors is linked to GDP growth, which is expected to improve slightly in the U.S. and China while remaining flattish in Europe. Medical Devices (normally included in this segment), lighting solutions and residential construction markets are likely to be stronger. As a result, semiconductor devices that have enabled increased automation and efficiencies are likely to see modest demand.

The aerospace and defense markets are considerably dependent on government spending and policy making. The commercial aerospace market (which lags an economic downturn or recovery) has started looking up. Production increases should be slightly positive for the semiconductor industry this year.

Defense spending remains uncertain, although electronic weaponry, intelligence systems and basic weaponry remain important. So semiconductor manufacturers serving these markets continue to see mixed results, depending on the customers served.

Component Details

Demand may be expected to pick up this year, as most OEMs and their channel partners have been reducing inventories and cutting utilization. PC and microprocessor inventory reduction has been significant, but should pick up this year driven by new product launches. Handset inventory declines were significant exiting 2012, driven by strong demand. Analog, discrete and storage inventories were also pretty lean, according to research firm iSuppli.

DRAM supply is likely to be short of demand this year because of its application in mobile devices like tablets and smartphones. NAND demand is also accelerating, with most manufacturers already ramping production (IC Insights). Standard logic will however remain weak this year, but increase thereafter (iSuppli).

The reason for the weakness is continued steep declines in the PC market, which uses the most standard logic. Demand will pick up slightly thereafter due to stronger automotive and industrial sales, which while being much smaller than the PC market, have seen increasing consumption of standard logic components.

Another noticeable trend is the increased outsourcing of manufacturing to foundries, which along with significant acquisitions, is giving rise to more concentrated supply from a few companies. The stronger demand and more concentrated supply should result in firmer prices this year. IC Insights expects the stronger pricing to drive a 50% growth in tablet processor revenues, 28% growth in cell phone processor revenues, 13% in wired special purpose logic, 12% in NAND and 11% in application-specific analog devices.

Demand at the wafer level is also expected to be strong, with SunEdison (SUNE) projecting a revenue increase of 6.8% in 2013. WFR is the primary wafer supplier to foundries and other semiconductor manufacturers.

Forecast for 2013

According to World Semiconductor Trade Statistics (WSTS) data, there should be positive worldwide semiconductor sales growth of 4.5% in 2013, following the 3.2% decline in 2012. Gartner and IC Insights are close to this, with projections at 4.5% and 6.0%, respectively. iSuppli and IDC more optimistic, predicting sales growth of 8.2% and 6.9%, respectively.

Major Players

The major players in the industry may be categorized into chipmakers (OEMs-whether fabless or otherwise), equipment and material suppliers and foundries.

Chip-makers

According to estimates from IHS iSuppli, Intel (INTC - Analyst Report) and Samsung remained the top two semiconductor suppliers in 2012. Texas Instruments (TXN - Analyst Report) slipped to number four, as Qualcomm (QCOM - Analyst Report) jumped from the sixth position in 2011 to the third in 2012.

Toshiba, Renesas, Hynix, STMicroelectronics (STM - Snapshot Report), Broadcom (BRCM - Analyst Report) and Micron Technologies (MU - Analyst Report) made up the next few positions with only Hynix and Broadcom advancing slightly. Applied Micro Devices (AMD) dropped to number 12, behind Sony, which advanced two positions.

Foundries

The pureplay Foundry segment has undergone significant changes over the past few years although the top five positions have not changed much, according to research from IC Insights. Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Company (TSM - Snapshot Report) remains the leader by far, followed by GlobalFoundries and then Taiwan-based United Microelectronics Corp (UMC). Chinese foundry Semiconductor Manufacturing International Corp (SMI - Snapshot Report) remains at number four, with specialty foundry TowerJazz (TSEM) in the fifth position. Additionally, Intel and Samsung are strong players with leading edge capabilities.

Leading edge investments remain very strong at market leaders TSM, GlobalFoundries, Intel and Samsung. TSM has recently increased its capex estimates for 2013 by $1.5 billion, making it the largest spender this year. Its agreement with Apple will likely spur investment at advanced technology nodes.

GlobalFoundries is spending 18% more than last year, but the foundry expects to spend much more next year. Samsung also raised capex projections by a billion dollars. Intel was the only one lowering, although it will still spend enough to make it one of the top three spenders.

Equipment Makers

Increased investment in capital equipment bodes well for equipment suppliers this year. However, while foundries and memory manufacturers take the lead, spending on the logic side will be slower. SEMI data shows positive bookings trends in the first few months of the year, although growth expectations remain modest at 0.4%. IC Insights is slightly more positive, projecting an increase of 1.8%.

In a recent report, Gartner estimated a 5.5% decline for 2013, given first half weakness and continued improvement through the second half. Growth is expected to be a very strong 14.2% in 2014, followed by a 10.1% increase in 2015.

Gartner estimates that Applied Materials (AMAT) regained the number one position in 2012 driven by stronger demand for its deposition and process control products. ASML Holdings (ASML - Snapshot Report), which had taken the lead in 2011 as a result of increased demand for EUV tools moved back into the second position. KLA-Tencor (KLAC - Analyst Report) occupied the fifth position.

The semiconductor industry is made up of 11 sub-sectors within the Technology sector, which is one of the 16 broad Zacks sectors. The following table seeks to explain the position of companies in the semiconductor market in the context of the Zacks Industry Rank.



We rank the 264 industries across the 16 Zacks sectors based on the earnings outlook and fundamental strength of the constituent companies in each industry. To learn more visit: About Zacks Industry Rank.

The outlook for industries positioned #88 or lower is 'Positive,' between #89 and #176 is 'Neutral' and #177 and higher is 'Negative.'

As indicated in the table above, the first 6 semiconductor segments are positive, while the rest are neutral.

So it is not surprising that the average rank of stocks is below 3.00 for most of the segments [note: Zacks Rank #1 denotes Strong Buy, #2 is Buy, #3 means Hold, #4 Sell and #5 Strong Sell].

Earnings Trends

The broader Technology sector, of which Semiconductors constitute a part, appears to be stable. Both the revenue beat ratio of 50.7% and earnings beat ratio of 66.7% were solid. The sector performed slightly better than the S&P 500 on both counts.

Total earnings for the sector were down 10.1% year over year, compared to an increase of 5.7% in the first quarter of 2013. Total revenues were up 0.4% from last year compared to a 1.5% increase in the first quarter.

The Technology sector is expected to be up 1.3% in 2013 and 11.1% in 2014.

OPPORTUNITIES

As evident from the above discussion, companies like International Rectifier (IRF), Power Integrations (POWI), Sigma Designs (SIGM) and Micron (MU - Analyst Report) represent good investments.

Others like ARM Holdings and Intel are somewhat riskier bets, but may still be considered by the brave of heart.

WEAKNESSES

There are currently no significant weaknesses in the industry.

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