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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. For example, 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 industry has come a long way since the last downturn, when most of the players streamlined operations and transferred more routine production to low-cost locations. This in turn led to the development of the Asian market, where most memory production and back-end operations have shifted.
When the recession hit in late 2008, semiconductor manufacturers cut production drastically instead of running the fabs at full capacity to maintain margins in the hope that the recession would blow over soon. As a result, there was no excess inventory that had to be burnt off when demand started returning. There was instead a shortage in some cases, which led to stronger pricing.
Therefore, the industry performed much better in 2009 than was originally anticipated. According to the Semiconductor Industry Association (SIA), worldwide sales of semiconductors were 226.3 billion in 2009, significantly better than the $219.7 billion forecasted for the year. This was a 9% decline from 2008.
The SIA estimates that around 52% of revenue came from the Asia/Pacific region (excluding Japan), followed by Japan and the Americas with a 17% share each and the balance from Europe. The sales by geography were similar to 2008, indicating that the recession had a similar impact on all geographies.
The SIA attributed the better-than-expected performance to much superior inventory management than in the prior downturn, new product launches and strength in the consumer and PC markets toward the end of the year. These two end markets together consume around 60% of total semiconductors sold.
Key End Markets
The computing market is characterized by commoditization and corresponding pricing pressures that have made it a lower-margin business. As a result, a number of chip companies have shifted focus to other areas. However, while it is true that the market is relatively mature and recession-impacted, there are some encouraging signs for 2010.
The first is a revival in corporate spending driven by new products, such as the Windows 7 OS from Microsoft and Nehalem architecture from Intel. The power efficiencies and cost reduction afforded by these products are driving hardware upgrades among small and large enterprises alike. Since there is some pent-up demand here, the impact is all the more significant.
The second is the server refresh cycle, increased virtualization, growth of cloud computing and expansion of the data center segment.
The third leg of growth in the computing market is coming from mobile computing platforms (although netbooks, tablets and MIDs are treated as consumer items by some). The longer term outlook for this market-expansive segment is extremely bright, although the remainder of 2010 looks cloudy at present, mainly due to inventory builds and uncertain consumer spending.
The consumer electronics market is growing in importance, especially gadgets such as LCD TVs, blu-ray players, smartphones and netbooks. The problem with this segment being a major driver of revenue is its inherently low margins. Competition is fierce and aggressive pricing is the rule of the day. Since semiconductors made for consumer goods are in the nature of components, there is ever-increasing pressure on their prices that correspondingly squeeze margins. According to the Consumer Electronics Association (CEA), the 7.8% revenue decline in 2009 was entirely on account of weaker pricing, as unit volumes of consumer goods increased around 10%. The CEA has revised upwards its initial expectations for 2010 and now expects the market to grow 3% in 2010 to $174.9 billion, compared to previous expectations of $165 billion. Total revenues are expected to reach $182 billion by 2011.
Mobile computing platforms, such as notebooks and tablets are expected to grow into the main drivers of market growth by next year, reaching $26 billion in shipment revenue. According to previous estimates, notebooks alone were expected to generate $14 billion in 2010. The other major driver is expected to be wireless handsets (contributing $26 billion in profits by 2011). Smartphones remain the major driver here, with shipment units reaching 54 million by year-end (previous estimate 52 million). By 2011, the CEA expects shipments to reach 66 million and generate $19.6 billion in revenue. The pricing pressure on digital displays is expected to continue, although volume expectations were doubled to 2.1 million. More than 6 million units ($7 billion in revenue) are expected by 2011. Other growth areas will be 3DTVs, Blu-ray players and eReaders.
Communications infrastructure spending is currently focused on 3G and 4G rollouts. In the U.S., 4G spending is at its peak, with Sprint (S) in the process of rolling out its network and Verizon (VZ) and AT&T (T) ramping up spending. In China, the three major carriers, China Telecom, China Unicom and China Mobile, are rolling out their 3G networks. Spending on 4G has yet to gain momentum. In India, carriers such as Bharti Airtel and Vodafone are also rolling out 3G infrastructure. Increasing data volumes and higher data speeds are primarily responsible for the rapid adoption of new technology in this market. Consequently, semiconductor companies with a communications infrastructure focus should see good growth opportunities for the rest of the year and in 2011.
Medical Devices is an upcoming area and some IC makers have started developing products targeted at this market as well. Some of the target products here include sensors for ICDs and other procedure-specific equipment, as well as equipment of a fixed nature, such as for MRI purposes. Notable here is the improved spending environment for MRI and other capital equipment, which had been hit by the recession.
"Light vehicles" is the section of the automotive market that primarily consumes semiconductors. Gartner expects this segment to grow 13.5% in 2010 to 67 million units (production had slipped 11.8% in 2009). The overall market for semiconductors serving the automotive market is expected to grow 23.5% in 2010, following a 21.7% decline in 2009. Further evidence of a recovery is in the stabilization of inventories, which started declining towards the end of 2008. China is one of the fastest growing markets for automobile production, having contributed 20% of global production in 2009. Semiconductor manufacturers serving this market have a few advantages.
The most important is the growing electronic content per vehicle, driven by the need for fuel efficiency, entertainment and automated navigation. The fact that an automobile model has a significantly longer life than a consumer device model is an added bonus, as once a semiconductor has been designed in, it continues to generate revenue for a number of years. This leads to a stable business model. Infineon Technologies, NEC Electronics, Freescale Semiconductor have significant presence in the automotive market and should see strong growth going forward.
The aerospace and defense markets depend on government spending and policy making and current trends indicate that the strength in defense spending will continue. However, current spending continues to be targeted at terrorist activity, so spending on intelligence systems, surveillance systems and reconnaissance systems remain in focus. Companies offering sophisticated weapons are not doing as good. Commercial aerospace remains affected by tight lending conditions, although the situation has started improving. Demand has increased rapidly, due to growing traffic across the world. So semiconductor manufacturers serving these markets are seeing gradually improving results.
Ever Smaller and More Powerful
Given the end markets driving the current strength in the industry, we believe that manufacturers of DRAM and flash (both NAND and NOR) will continue to see strong demand. The transition from DDR2 to DDR3 will add to growth.
The demand for greater functionality in smaller and more power efficient gadgets is leading to greater integration within the semiconductor device. This is leading to increased demand for the system-on-a-chip (SoC), which is a single device incorporating a microprocessor, digital signal processor or graphics core, as well as memory and logic. Within SoCs, both application specific integrated circuits (ASICs) and application specific standard products (ASSPs) are expected to do well. ASICs are usually customized for a single buyer, while ASSPs may have multiple buyers.
The major players in the industry may be categorized into chipmakers (OEMs-whether fabless or otherwise), equipment and material suppliers, and foundries.
According to Gartner Dataquest and iSuppli Corp, Intel Corp. ( INTC - Analyst Report ) , Samsung and Toshiba Corp were the top three semiconductor suppliers in 2009. Texas Instruments (TXN) remained in the fourth position, as the company continued to phase off its wireless baseband business. STMicroelectronics (STM) was in fifth position, followed by Qualcomm (QCOM), which rose from the eighth position in 2008. Hynix also gained, moving from the ninth position in 2008 to the seventh position in 2009. Japan's Renesas slipped a couple of places to number eight. Applied Micro Devices ( AMD - Analyst Report ) re-entered the top ten at number nine, followed by Sony (SNE), which slipped a few places to end at number ten.
VLSI Research estimates that semiconductor equipment sales by the top ten suppliers declined 38.2% in 2009, following a 26% decline in 2008. Therefore, the segment has shrunk by over 50% over the past two years. North American suppliers declined 36.9%, Japanese suppliers declined 35.6%, while European suppliers declined 44.5%. However, despite the difficulties related to the recession and the new trend of equipping fabs with used materials, Applied Materials ( AMAT - Analyst Report ) easily maintained its number one position in 2009. Tokyo Electron Ltd moved from the third to the second position, exchanging places with ASML Holdings N.V. ( ASML - Snapshot Report ) . Nikon Corporation was at number four, followed by KLA-Tencor ( KLAC - Analyst Report ) and Lam Research Corp. ( LRCX - Snapshot Report ) . The other players in the top ten included Dainippon, ASM International N.V. ( ASMI ) , Novellus Systems, Inc. (NVLS) and Teradyne, Inc. (TER) in that order.
Gartner estimates that the semiconductor capital equipment sales will grow 113.2% in 2010, with wafer fab equipment growing 113.3%, packaging and assembly equipment growing 104.7% and ATE growing 133.1%. However, the research organization cautions against a much softer 2011, with growth in the above markets dropping to 6.6%, 7.2%, 0.7% and 12.6%, respectively. Growth is currently expected to stabilize in 2012 and decline thereafter.
The Foundry segment went through a major change in 2009 according to recently-announced research from IC Insights. Although Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Company (TSM) remains the leader by far, followed by Taiwan-based United Microelectronics Corp. (UMC) and Singapore-based Chartered Semiconductor Manufacturing (CHRT), the fourth position has gone to GlobalFoundries, which commenced business in March last year. Semiconductor Manufacturing International Corp. (SMI) of China was pushed to the fifth position.
Manufacturing digital ICs is expensive, as it requires state-of-the-art technology and processes. On the other hand, digital products are cheaper, so cost recovery is more difficult. This has led to specialization in the industry and a greater contribution from Asian manufacturers. However, a large portion of the intellectual property remains with the domestic companies.
We believe equipment suppliers will be big beneficiaries of the ongoing recovery and we are bullish on the sector. All the companies here had been severely impacted by the recession, as foundries, memory and logic makers decided to cut capex. However, growth estimates for the sector have gone up from strong double-digits to triple digits. This is largely because of capex cuts in 2009 that resulted in pent up demand.
We are, however likely to see increased use of old and refurbished equipment. Among the equipment suppliers, we particularly like Applied Materials, not just because it is one of the largest equipment makers, but also because of its position in the solar device equipment market, as well as its existing refurbished tools business. Granted that there are some issues in the solar business right now, but we remain positive about longer-term prospects. We are also optimistic about KLA-Tencor ( KLAC - Analyst Report ) and Novellus Systems (NVLS) and believe they will do well both in terms of revenue and profit growth in 2010.
Our favorites in this area include Texas Instruments, Linear Technology ( LLTC - Analyst Report ) , Analog Devices ( ADI - Analyst Report ) , Semtech Corp. (SMTC), Intersil Corp. (ISIL) and Maxim Integrated Products ( MXIM - Analyst Report ) , which are seeing very strong demand. Although some of these companies could see a faster recovery than others, they are, for the most part, highly diversified, high-margin businesses. Hence, the sector should do very well in 2010.
Microprocessors are a big market dominated by a few players. We are positive about Intel Corp because of its market position, superior innovation, effective strategies and strong cash generating ability. We remain a little concerned about the legal tussles with NVIDIA Corp. (NVDA), which could come to a head in September.
Advanced Micro Devices on the other hand, is low on cash and market position, although the company’s new product roadmap, aggressive pricing, the foundry spin-off and promise of positive cash flow in 2010 indicate upside for the stock.
It is hard to ignore ARM Holdings ( ARMH - Snapshot Report ) in this space, whose power-efficient low-performance chips dominate the growing cell phone market and are also gaining popularity in the nascent MID market.
The Asian foundries will operate at full capacity this year, but order fulfillment could still be a challenge due to low investment in capex during the recessionary environment. Consequently, we believe that foundries, such as Taiwan Semiconductor (TSM), United Microelectronics Corp. (UMC) and Semiconductor Manufacturing Int'l (SMI) will see limited upside this year, despite very strong demand. Similar will be the position at memory manufacturers, such as Micron Technology ( MU - Snapshot Report ) and Hynix.
We have recently turned negative on NVIDIA Corp due to market dynamics impacting the company. NVIDIA remains dominant in the discrete graphics chip market, where its chips are unparalleled. However, research shows that the demand for cheaper integrated solutions is on the rise. We also note that the company wrote down its inventory by a significant amount in the last quarter, seeming to indicate the need to adopt aggressive pricing to sell it off.
SIA Forecast 2010
The Semiconductor Industry Association expects semiconductor sales to increase 28.4% in 2010 to $290.5 billion (previous expectation was for a 10.2% increase). Revenue is currently expected to touch $308.7 billion, or a 6.3% increase in 2011 (previous expectation was for an 8.4% increase in 2011). The SIA also expects the industry to grow another 2.9% in 2012 to $317.8 billion.
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