Intel (INTC) and ARM Holdings (ARMH)

At its Developer Forum yesterday, INTC announced that it is opening its cutting-edge fabs to manufacture chips that employ ARMH designs created by third parties.  So, as at least part of its business, INTC intends to become a foundry like TSMC.

(An aside: despite its glitzy style, it’s much harder to find information about the move on INTC’s website than on ARMH’s.  I don’t know whether this has any significance, but it’s the sort of odd fact that rattles around in a security analyst’s head until an answer can be found.  Is it me?  Is INTC more interested in sizzle than steak?  Is INTC’s IR effort still mired in the mindset of the former regime?…)

I’m not sure what the total significance of this move is, but at the very least:

–TSMC, the premier foundry, a Taiwanese company, trades at about a 17x price earnings multiple.  INTC now trades at about the same PE, although it has typically traded at a lower rating than TSMC in the past.  In contrast, ARMH trades at about 70x, a PE that I think must be unsustainably high, even though ARMH has managed to do so for years.

For my money, INTC’s fabs are better than TSMC’s.  Making loads of ARM chips for others will likely not lower INTC’s pe ratio.  Arguably, as the foundry business expands, INTC’s pe will rise.

–in every generation, the size of chips shrinks while the cost of a next generation fab rises. As a result, the amount of output that a fab must have to be able to operate profitably increases, while the penalty for having too little output goes up as well.

The ARMH partnership signals, I think, that INTC believes that to maintain its manufacturing edge, it must accept manufacturing orders from outside parties.


More tomorrow.





thinking about Big Oil

I’m starting to feel I should be interested in oil stocks again.  That’s mostly because I think that we’ve already seen the lows for the oil price earlier in this year, when quotes were flirting with $25 a barrel.  I continue to think that crude will trade in a range between $40 and $60.

Under normal circumstances, I’d figure that the big multinational integrated oils would be the safest bet and that one could add some oilfield services shares to provide speculative upside potential.

For today, however, I don’t think the traditional formula is right.  Instead, I think the main thing to come to grips with is the technological change that hydraulic fracturing has brought to the industry.  I think this is similar to what happened in the steel industry when mini-mills began to compete with blast furnaces  …or to semiconductor manufacturing when third-party fabrication plants opened in Taiwan, enabling the separation of thought-intensive design from capital-intensive plant ownership  …or to the computer industry when the minicomputer and the PC replaced the mainframe.

If I’m right about this, then anything that has to do with the older order is out.  This means multi-year mega projects in remote or hostile environments (physically or politically) are substantially more risky than they have been.  It also means that the builders of giant offshore drilling equipment to find, lift or transport this kind of output aren’t coming back any time soon.  Nor are the service companies that own this sort of equipment and specialize in this kind of drilling.

The Big Oil majors, who have been the leading proponents of exotic mega projects, must also come into question, as well.   How quickly can/will they mentally adjust to a new era of abundant oil rather than perpetual shortage?  What will they do about projects that are now under way?

What other industries undergoing radical transformation have shown in the past is that the incumbents take a surprisingly long time to adjust to the new circumstances.  If that proves true again, then the best way to make money will be to undertake the tedious task of examining smaller fracking-related drillers and service companies to see how they will benefit.


more on productivity

Last Friday, Jim Paulsen, a strategist from Wells Fargo whose work I like, gave an interview with CNBC about productivity.  His take: US productivity is being substantially understated.

The interview contains an interesting chart–one well worth checking out–in which Mr. Paulsen tracks a measure of wage growth with one of productivity.  Historically, the two have moved in tandem  …until 2012.  At that time wage growth begins to accelerate …and productivity starts to drop like a stone.

His argument is that if the productivity figures are as bad as they look, employers would never be raising wages at anything like the rate they are.

To get his results, Mr. Paulsen has had to do two things:  he uses real (meaning after inflation is subtracted) wage growth and productivity; and he uses deviation from trend (sort of like a rate of change) rather than the wage and productivity figures themselves.

As a general rule, I don’t like charts (because you can manipulate the axes to add or subtract drama), and I worry when the key relationships are in derivative data.  Still, I think the Paulsen argument is right.  Wages are rising in a way that strongly suggests there’s something wrong with the official productivity calculations.