Applied Materials Hit by Foundry Caution

August 28, 2012

Applied Materials (AMAT), the semiconductor capital equipment maker, reported worse than expected revenue and earnings for fiscal Q3 when it reported on August 15, 2012. Contrast my story about Applied's Q1, where I said results came in better than expected because "a couple of large foundries placed unexpected orders and took delivery faster than expected on Q4 orders. Most of this unexpected bonus was to fabricate mobile application processors, which are the hearts of tablet computers and smartphones."

What are investors to make of such quarterly fluctuations? Is AMAT in trouble, or is was Q3 just a small bump in the road?

Capital equipment of any kind can be very cyclical and sensitive to changes in ultimate product demand. If end-market demand is not increasing factories (in this case foundries) don't need to add more equipment to keep up with demand. In semiconductors this is somewhat mitigated by the constant shrinking of transistor sizes, but that also comes in cycles, with Intel typically doing the first shrink and everyone else catching up later depending on their specific product needs, usually new product introductions.

The numbers tell the overall story of Q3 (which ended July 29). Revenues were $2.34 billion, down 8% sequentially from $2.54 billion and down 17% from $2.79 billion in the year-earlier quarter. GAAP Net income was $218 million, down 25% sequentially from $289 million and down 54% from $476 million year-earlier. GAAP EPS (earnings per share) were $0.17, down 23% sequentially from $0.22 and down 53% from $0.36 year-earlier.

Note that profits were substantial even at this level of revenue. This may not be the very bottom of the current cycle, but it is probably pretty close.

Foundries were cautious ordering in the quarter, prefering to risk not being able to produce enough chips in Q4 if demand is greater than expected. The same seems to be true throughout the semiconductor industry lately, with everyone trying to keep inventories low in case demand in Europe or China sinks further.

Management reported that much of the equipment is being sold to manufacture chips for mobile devices, but as device sales are seasonal, semiconductor fab equipment sales are starting to show more annual seasonality than in the past. The industry is moving to 28 nm based mobile devices, so even without global demand expansion 28 nm capacity has to be added (at 28 nm smartphone makers can get more computing capacity while extending battery life).

Applied Materials is also suffering from its display equipment segment, as display factories have plenty of capacity. However, new technologies will likely be introduced in 2013. Similarly its solar equipment sales were minimal as factories in China are able to meet short term demand for solar cells. Prices have dropped enough that demand should gradually pick up the slack caused by overproduction, despite new U.S. punitive tariffs. In addition, there has been talk of Applied selling its solar division. That makes no sense to me, it would make more sense to at least hold onto it until demand returns, when it would fetch a considerably better price.

One strong point for Applied during demand dips is its services division. Old equipment needs maintenance. Services revenue was $579 million, up 5% in the quarter.

Of course if the global economy melts down even bonds and gold will be worthless, but the most likely scenario for Applied Materials is for stronger growth in late 2012 and into 2013. This will be driven by returning demand for display and solar manufacturing equipment, as well as the more complicated (and expensive) equipment lines needed to manufacturer semiconductor chips and 28 nm and below.

AMAT has a number of competitors, but loss of market share has not been an issue. Applied spent $209 million on research and development in the quarter and has a healthy pipeline of new and future products.

For more details about Q3 results, including questions by analysts, see my Applied Materials Q3 2012 Analyst Call notes.

If you are a long-term investor in Applied Materials you can still do what I do, taking advantage of the mistakes of short-termers. We know revenue of from sales of expensive pieces of capital equipment will be cyclic. In the long run the cycles don't matter to much, only the long-term trend and dividends. On down legs the stock tends to be underpriced, and at least in bull markets on the upward portion of cycles the stock may get overpriced. Buy low, sell high. There are always people doing the opposite who will be happy to trade with you.

AMAT stock ended yesterday at , giving it a market capitalization near $14.3 billion. Its 52 week low was $9.70 on October 4, 2011, and its 52 week high was $13.94 on February 17. It pays $0.09 per quarter in dividends, making its yield today 3.1%.

Disclaimer: I have a long position in Applied Materials (AMAT), with a long term view. I will not trade in AMAT for at least 7 days after this article is published.

See also the Applied Materials web site.

And keep diversified!

William P. Meyers

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Copyright 2012 William P. Meyers