Intel (INTC) and ARM Holdings (ARMH)

chipmaking rivalry

The big division in the chip-making industry over the past 15-20 years has been between giant vertically integrated makers like INTC, Texas Instruments … which manufacture chips designed in-house and smaller digitally-oriented design firms who rent structural intellectual property from ARMH, modify it and have chips made in third-party contract fabrication factories like those run by TSMC.

INTC’s advantages have been the raw power of its chips and its manufacturing superiority.  Users of the ARMH framework tout the elegance of their designs that enables output to be smaller, use less electricity and generate less heat.

disruption by iPhone

The balance of power began to shift away from INTC and toward the ARMH camp when INTC decided not to make chips for the iPhone.  It may be that INTC management thought smartphones were a flash in the pan, as urban legend has it, or it may simply have been that INTC knew its chips ran too hot and used too much power for Apple to be satisfied with them.  In any event, INTC has been trying to reinvent itself since then, by improving its chip design while maintaining its manufacturing edge.

On the latter front, INTC continues do well; on the former, not so much.  Despite a lot of design effort, its low-power, low-heat solutions for the smartphone world haven’t been good enough to gain much traction.

This itself threatens the manufacturing operation.  As INTC steadily shrinks the size of its chips, each silicon wafer processed becomes capable of yielding more output.  At some point, INTC’s factories are potentially going to be capable of churning out more chips than the company can reasonably expect to sell to its PC and server customers.  The capital equipment used in chip making is so expensive–$3 billion+ today, maybe $10 billion+ for the fabs of a few years from now–that the factories have to run at high utilization rates to be profitable.  INTC has already said that next-generation (extreme ultraviolet lithography) technology is too expensive for even INTC to invest in by itself.

Hence the deal with ARMH.

three other points:

–presumably working with ARMH-based firms will help INTC fine-tune its manufacturing processes for mobile and the Internet of Things

–this may be the first step in closer cooperation between the two companies

–the arrangement has been announced very quickly after Softbank agreed to acquire ARMH.  Are the two connected?  If so, Masayoshi Son may have plans for much greater integration of the two rival firms.

 

 

 

 

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.

 

 

 

 

takeovers and market price indications: Softbank/Arm Holdings

Softbank is bidding £17 per share for ARM, an offer that management of the chip design company has quickly accepted.  ARM closed in London at £16.61 yesterday, after trading as high as £17.52 in the initial moments of Monday trading–the first time the London market was open after the bid announcement.

What is the price of ARM telling us?

Let’s make the (reasonable, in my opinion) assumption that the price of ARM is now being determined by the activity of merger and acquisition specialists, many of whom work in companies mainly, or wholly, devoted to this sort of analysis.

These specialists will consider three factors in figuring out what they’re willing to pay for ARM:

–the time they think it will take until the takeover is completed (let’s say, three months),

–the cost of borrowing money to buy ARM shares (2% per year?) and

–the return they expect to make from holding the shares and delivering them to Softbank.

They’ll buy if the return is high enough.  They’ll stay on the sidelines otherwise.

Suppose they think that without any doubt the Softbank bid for ARM is going to succeed–that no other bidder is going to emerge and that the takeover is going to encounter no regulatory problems (either delays or outright vetoing the combination).  In this case, the calculation is straightforward.  The only real question is the return the arbitrageur is willing to accept.

I haven’t been closely involved in this business for years.  Although I know the chain of reasoning that goes into determining a potential buy point, I no longer know the minimum an arbitrageur considers an acceptable.  If it were me, 10% would be the least I’d accept if I thought there were any risk;  5% might be my lower limit even if I saw clear sailing ahead.  If nothing else, I’m tying up borrowing power that I might be able to use more profitably elsewhere.

Let’s now look at the ARM price.

At £16.61, ARM is trading at a 2.3% discount to the offer price.  An arbitrageur who can borrow at 0.5% for three months stands to make a 1.8% return by buying ARM now.  Ugh!  The only way to make an acceptable return, if the assumptions I’ve outlined above are correct, is to leverage yourself to the sky.

 

From this analysis, I conclude two things:

–the market is not worrying about any regulatory impediments to the speedy conclusion of the union.  Quite the opposite.  Otherwise, someone would be shorting ARM.

–buyers seem to me to be speculating in a very mild way that a higher bid will emerge.  If they had strong confidence in another suitor coming forward, the stock would be trading above £17.  If they were 100% convinced that there would be no new offer, I think the stock would be trading closer to £16.25, a point which would represent an annualized 20% return to a purchaser using borrowed money.

 

 

 

Softbank and Arm Holdings (ARM)

My thoughts:

–the price Softbank is offering for ARM seems very high to me.  That’s partly intentional on Softbank’s part, not wanting to get into a bidding war.  It’s also based on Softbank’s non-consensus belief that the development of the Internet of Things will be a much bigger plus for ARM than the consensus understands.

–I’m rereading the resignation of Nikesh Arora as a sign of his disapproval of the acquisition, not of Masayoshi Son’s remaining at the helm of Softbank

–ARM seems to be content to be bought.  And why not?  Holders of ARM stock and options will get a big payday.  Softbank has no semiconductor design expertise, so ARM will likely run autonomously under the Son roof.  Softbank is also apparently promising to keep the company headquarters in the UK as well as to substantially increase the research staff.

–A competing bid is unlikely.  That’s mostly because of the price.  But ARM management knows it would never have the operating freedom as a subsidiary of Intel or Samsung (the most logical other suitors) that it would as part of Softbank.  When the company’s assets leave in the elevator every night, any unfriendly bid is inherently risky.  Doubly so when it threatens a really sweet deal.  No, I don’t think antitrust issues would be a deterrent to a bid.

–Will the UK allow the deal?  The Financial Times, which should be in a position to know, suggests that the UK might not.

How so?

ARM is basically the country’s only major technology company, so domestic ownership may be an issue of national prestige and pride.  There’s certain to be some opposition, I think.  And crazier things have happened.  For example, France disallowed Pepsi’s bid for Danone on the argument that the latter’s yogurt is a national treasure.  In the late 1970s, the US barred Fujitsu from buying Fairchild Semiconductor on grounds that foreign ownership presented national security risks   …and then allowed it to be sold to French oilfield services firm Schlumberger.  More recently, the US scuttled the sale of a ports management business that runs Newark and other US ports to the government of Dubai, an ally, on security grounds.  The would-be seller was also foreign, P&O of the UK.

This is the major risk I see.

Softbank and ARM Holdings

a brief history of Softbank

Softbank is a Japanese company incorporated in 1981.  It has a non-establishment CEO, Masayoshi Son, notoriously opaque financials and a reputation as a maverick in its home country.  The company’s earliest successes came as an investor partnering with international internet companies entering Japan, like Yahoo and eTrade.  It was also an early supporter of now-huge Chinese internet businesses.

In 2006, it became an active business owner, entering the Japanese cellphone market by acquiring Vodafone’s network.  It revolutionized that business in Japan by rebranding as Softbank Mobile and launching a very successful discount cellphone service.

In 2012 it decided to employ the same strategy in the US, buying a controlling interest in Sprint.  Softbank appears to me tohave made the bold $21+ billion commitment thinking it could build a viable nationwide network by merging Sprint with T-Mobile.  Anti-trust regulators prevented that from happening, however, leaving Sprint in its current weak position and Softbank with a mess.

About a year ago, perhaps chastened by his Sprint error, Mr. Son announced he was stepping down as CEO and hired his apparent successor, Google executive Nikesh Arora.

Late last month Mr. Arora, who had been working to reduce Softbank’s financial leverage through asset sales, announced he was leaving the company, and Mr. Son that he was now planning to remain as CEO for perehaps ten more years.

This weekend we learned why–Softbank announced that Arm Holdings, the UK-based chip design firm, had accepted its all-cash bid of £24 billion ($32 billion), a 40%+ premium to its Friday close in London.

which Son is making this purchase?

Is it the prescient buyer of Alibaba and Vodafone Japan?    …or is it the sorely disappointed purchaser of Sprint?  Mr. Son is apparently arguing that development of the Internet of Things will generate a surprisingly large explosion of licensing fees and royalties for Arm.

More tomorrow.

TSMC’s 28 nanometer problems: significance

Rumors have been swirling for some time in tech circles about difficulties the Taiwanese foundry, Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Company (TSMC), is having in bringing its latest cutting-edge chip fabrication lines into full production.  The stories were confirmed when QCOM warned in its latest earnings conference call that over the next quarter or two it would be unable to supply customers with all the most advanced chips they wanted. (Interestingly, in its quarterly earnings call, AAPL said it would be unaffected because it isn’t using 28 nm chips.)

Why is this important?

background

1.  For many semiconductor chips, the history of their manufacture is one of constant attempts to make more complex and faster speed, but also smaller, less power-hungry and cooler output.  One of the main ways of accomplishing all but the first of these goals has been to shrink the spacing between the lines of the chip patterns written onto silicon.

2.  A nanometer is a billionth of a meter.   The 28 nanometer spacing that TSMC is having trouble with is, therefore, a distance between lines of 28 billionths of an inch.

3.  About twenty years ago, the foundry–or third-party manufacturing–business began to come into prominence, as several positive factors for that industry converged.  The increasing complexity of semiconductor “fabs” meant that it cost $3 billion to build one.  Even worse, a fab churned out $7+ billion in output, far beyond the sales of all but the largest companies.  At the same time, a generation of ambitious chip designers wanted to break away from stodgier established firms and develop chip designs on their own. Many focused on customizing templates provided by ARM Holdings (ARMH).

4.  The unquestioned leader in the foundry arena is TSMC.

a paradigm shift in the offing?

There are two big integrated semiconductor designer/fabricators left–INTC and Samsung.  Neither is having fabrication problems.  INTC is beginning to produce 22nm chips in volume, and promises 14 nm for 2013.  In addition, it is using a new production technique that it calls “3-D,” that gets an unusually large benefit from its current linewidth shrink.  Most important, in my view, is that the company seems increasingly concerned with providing customers with products they want, rather than just the latest engineering tour de force.

Samsung already provides foundry services to others–it builds many AAPL chips, for example.  And INTC’s mammoth capital spending campaign of 2011-12 has analysts asking–and the company denying–that it intends to offer similar foundry services in the future.

my thoughts

ARMH, which has–with justification–been an immense market outperformer as the one-stop-shopping way to play the mobile device chips that the design firms/foundry model has been churning out.  But the stock (at 55x historic eps) is down about 20% over the past year, a time when INTC shares (12x) is up by 25%.  Over the same period, Samsung Electronics (5930.KS) (15x) is up 50%.

Yes, the issue with ARMH may just be the high PE multiple.  And, yes, Samsung isn’t just chips.  It’s a force in smartphones and dominant in TVs.  And it trades in a market that marches to its own drummer.  But I think the market is saying that the old integrated model has more going for it than the consensus appreciates.  I also think the market is right.

TSMC’s fabrication difficulties may be the trigger that gets a wider group of investors to focus on the change.