Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Reading into INTC's 4Q downdate: HDDs, PCs, and SSDs

The impact of the Thailand flooding has, as expected, spread throughout the tech supply chain, and now appears to be affecting even chip giant Intel. The company now says its 4Q11 sales will be about -7% below estimates ($13.4B-$14B, vs. $14.2-$15.2B) due to ramifications from the disaster. Gross margins are seen fractionally lower at ~64.5%. (Barclays' CJ Muse notes that $1B in lower sales, paired with $95 ASPs, suggests 10.5M fewer unit shipments -- which he translates to an -11% decline in 4Q11, instead of previous 1.5% expectations.)

PC sales are still expected to be up sequentially, but inventories are vanishing in the global supply chain as hard-disk drives are increasingly scarce (a big chunk of global HDD production is in the flooding-ravaged areas and has been knocked offline). Intel expects HDD shortages to linger into 1Q12, after which MPU inventories need to be rebuilt through 1H12.

Analysts' Take

Given the breadth of the Thai flooding's industrywide impact (from HDDs to chip packaging services), nobody seems very surprised that INTC is now being affected. Earlier this week IHS iSuppli calculated nearly a 4M unit shortfall in 1Q11 PC shipments as a result of the floods, exacerbating what is already a seasonally slow post-holiday period for PC demand. (The firm says HDD supplies should rebound by 2Q12, though -- and might even achieve oversupply before the year's out.)

Analysts also seem to be more comfortable with where Intel's numbers are relative to (what they believe is) sentiment among the greater PC sector. (Remember how analysts previously tried to overlay PC weakness onto INTC, to no avail?) FBR Research's Craig Berger points out that Intel's been "disconnected from the rest of the PC supply chain for at least a couple quarters," but both he and Barclays' Muse agree that Intel's adjusted outlook is now better aligned with end-market demand, from deteriorating ODM build data to PC demand assumptions to pre-flooding PC sales warnings from Dell and HP.

Muse, Sterne Agee's Vijay Rakesh, and Citi's Glen Yeung await the other shoe to drop for AMD's 4Q11 results (1%-5% expected growth, for now) and 1Q12 outlook (Rakesh is also watching Nvidia.) AMD, though, seems not to be worried about HDD supply issues for now; "In 1Q and 2Q, maybe you see some manifestations," according to new CEO Rory Read, but right now AMD isn't seeing any "major pressure in terms of the quarter."

Others wonder if the HDD shortage is drawing attention away from bigger problems with end-demand. Credit Suisse's John Pitzer suggests 1H12 demand will also be soft due to Windows 8 "anticipatory pause," ongoing worries about ARM competition, plus continued "macro headwinds and the likelihood of another INTC miss." At least the problems would seem to be cyclical and not structural in nature, with PC growth expected to accelerate again in 2Q/3Q12. FBR's Berger sees other warning signs that could pinch PC margins in 2012 (and perhaps trickle down to INTC and other component suppliers): Chinese labor costs (10%-30% higher in 2011, another 30%-50% in 2012); commodity inflation (e.g. gold, Cu, metal casings); and more competition from tablets (iPad et al, assuming 2.5 tablets cannibalize one PC).

If HDD supplies are a problem, is this a window of opportunity for solid-state drives (SSD)? Not really, Intel says; ODMs probably are reevaluating their options as the HDD supply situation evolves, but SSD demand probably won't accelerate until the end of 2012. -- J.M.

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