INTC reported 3Q14 results after the close on Tuesday. Earnings per share came in at $.66, which beat the brokerage house analyst consensus by $.02. The company’s guidance for 4Q14 exceeded analysts’ expectations as well.
The stock gained about 3% in the aftermarket …but plunged at the open yesterday.
There are two main points at issue, as I see it:
1. Some analysts think INTC’s outlook is too bullish.
a. Last Thursday, Microchip Technology (MCHP), a maker of a broad range of commodity semiconductors, warned that its 3Q14 would be weaker than it had previously thought. The reason: weakness in China in September. The company also predicted that a general semiconductor industry downturn is now beginning.
MCHP is saying, in effect, that it is in much better touch with end users of its products than most other semiconductor firms, including INTC. It records revenue only when an end-user buys a chip from a distributor–not when the chip leaves the factory, which is the common industry practice. It believes others will soon figure out they have much too much inventory floating around in their distribution systems (already booked as revenue) and will be forced to cut back production to bring them back into line with demand. If so, MCHP is sort of like the canary in the coal mine for chipmakers.
b. INTC recorded healthy growth in its PC business. Third-party research services like IDC say demand was basically flat. Is INTC inadvertently stuffing the channel?
INTC’s response to this worry is:
–it’s a specialized maker of microprocessors
–corporate demand is strong, partly because Microsoft (MSFT) has stopped supporting Windows XP, but also because corporations are beginning to replace the now-decrepit PCs they’ve been duct taping back together for a decade. This trend will last for a long time.
–third-party researchers like IDC are fine for tabulating demand in the US and the EU, but can’t easily see the businesses of no-name computer makers in the emerging world who are strong INTC customers.
–yes, inventories are higher today than they were a year ago, but they’ve just returned to normal from extremely low levels.
2. INTC’s mobile chip business is losing $1 billion a quarter, even as the company has become the second-largest vendor of tablet microprocessors in the world. Can this end well?
The company has gone from a standing start to having chips in maybe 40 million tablets being made this year. It is concentrating on low-end tablets in emerging markets, entering into long-term R&D and development arrangements with Chinese firms–and, for now at least, more or less giving its chips away to get them into machines (the reality is more complicated).
The company thinks it can begin to whittle away at those losses, beginning next year. Profitability in 2016? My guess is yes, but who knows?
If INTC is ever going to crack the mobile market, the time is now and the company’s strategy is sound (it’s also the only one I see available to it). Suppose it loses $5 billion on the effort and has to reassess. Not good …but then $5 billion represents only about 3% of the firms stock market value. A risk, yes, but one worth taking, I think.
The cyclical downturn thesis is more worrying. When it comes down to it, though, I’m unwilling to generalize from MCHP’s business softness. Arguably, the weakness MCHP is seeing comes from the Beijing orienting the economy away from construction and low-end commodity-like activities. The move to higher value-added business should mean greater demand for microprocessors, not less. So on this front, too, I’m willing to give INTC the benefit of the doubt.
The stock is trading at 15x earnings (high for it but a discount to the market) and yielding a tad under 3%. If I had to put numbers to my thinking, I’d say that, in the absence of a serious semiconductor swoon, downside is to $25. Upside if tablet losses begin to abate in 2015 is maybe to $45.
If I thought upside and downside were both equally probable, I should have been a seller at $35. I wasn’t. I’m now guessing that upside/downside has deteriorated from 2/1 to each equally probable. But at $31, I’m still a holder. I’m not a buyer, though.