The semiconductor industry lives - and dies - by a simple creed: smaller, faster and cheaper. The benefit of being tiny is pretty simple: finer lines mean more transistors can be packed onto the same chip. The more transistors on a chip, the faster it can do its work. Thanks in large part to fierce competition and to new technologies that lower the cost of production per chip, within a matter of months, the price of a new chip can fall 50%.
As a result, there is constant pressure on chip makers to come up with something better and even cheaper than what redefined state-of-the-art only a few months before. Chips makers must constantly go back to the drawing board to come up with superior goods. Even in a down market, weak sales are seen as no excuse for not coming up with better products to whet the appetites of customers who will eventually need to upgrade their computing and electronic devices.
Traditionally, semiconductor companies controlled the entire production process, from design to manufacture. Yet many chip makers are now delegating more and more production to others in the industry. Foundry companies, whose sole business is manufacturing, have recently come to the fore, providing attractive outsourcing options. In addition to foundries, the ranks of increasingly specialized designers and chip testers are starting to swell. Chip companies are emerging leaner and more efficient. Chip production now resembles a gourmet restaurant kitchen, where chefs line up to add just the right spice to the mix.
Broadly speaking, the semiconductor industry is made up of four main product categories:
- Memory: Memory chips serve as temporary storehouses of data and pass information to and from computer devices' brains. The consolidation of the memory market continues, driving memory prices so low that only a few giants like Toshiba, Samsung and NEC can afford to stay in the game.
- Microprocessors: These are central processing units that contain the basic logic to perform tasks. Intel's domination of the microprocessor segment has forced nearly every other competitor, with the exception of Advanced Micro Devices, out of the mainstream market and into smaller niches or different segments altogether.
- Commodity Integrated Circuit: Sometimes called "standard chips", these are produced in huge batches for routine processing purposes. Dominated by very large Asian chip manufacturers, this segment offers razor-thin profit margins that only the biggest semiconductor companies can compete for.
- Complex SOC: "System on a Chip" is essentially all about the creation of an integrated circuit chip with an entire system's capability on it. The market revolves around growing demand for consumer products that combine new features and lower prices. With the doors to the memory, microprocessor and commodity integrated circuit markets tightly shut, the SOC segment is arguably the only one left with enough opportunity to attract a wide range of companies.
Moore's Law: The productivity miracle that has kept the number of transistors on a chip doubling every two years or so. Gordon Moore, a co-founder of Intel, predicted that this trend would continue for the foreseeable future. The challenge now faced by semiconductor research and development (R&D) teams is to push the performance envelope and keep pace with the law.
"Fabless" Chip Makers: Semiconductor companies that carry out design and marketing, but choose to outsource some or all of the manufacturing. These companies have high growth potential because they are not burdened by the overhead associated with manufacture, or "fabrication".
R&D/Sales: Research and Development Expenses
The greater the percentage spent on R&D, the more opportunities are available for developing new chip products. In general, the higher the R&D/Sales ratio, the better the prospects for the chip maker.
Yield: The number of operational devices out of all manufactured. In the 1980s, chip makers lived with yields of 10-30%. To be competitive today, however, chip makers have to sustain yields of 80-90%. This requires very expensive manufacturing processes.
Book-to-Bill Ratio: Describes the technology industry's demand/supply ratio for orders on a "firm's book" to number of orders filled.
This ratio measures whether the company has more semiconductor orders than it can deliver (if the ratio is greater than 1), equal amounts (equal to 1), or less (less than 1). This monthly figure is widely published by financial newspapers and websites.
If semiconductor investors can remember one thing, it should be that the semiconductor industry is highly cyclical. Semiconductor companies face constant booms and busts in demand for products. Demand typically tracks end-market demand for personal computers, cell phones and other electronic equipment. When times are good, companies like Intel and Toshiba can't produce microchips quickly enough to meet demand. When times are tough, they can be downright brutal. Slow PC sales, for instance, can send the industry – and its share prices - into a tailspin.
Surprisingly, the cyclicality of the industry can provide a degree of comfort for investors. In some other technology sectors, like telecom equipment, one can never be entirely sure whether fortunes are cyclical or secular. By contrast, investors can be almost certain that the market will turn at some point in the not-so-distant future. (For more insight, read Cyclical Vs. Non-Cyclical Stocks and The Ups And Downs Of Investing In Cyclical Stocks.)
At the same time, it doesn't make sense to speak of the "chip cycle" as if it were an event of singular nature. While semiconductors is still a commodity business at heart, its end markets are so numerous - PCs, communications infrastructure, automotive, consumer products, etc., - that it is unlikely that excess capacity in one area will bring the whole house down.
While cyclicality offers some comfort, it also creates risk for investors. Chip makers must routinely take part in high stakes gambling. The big risk comes from the fact that it can take many months, or even years, after a major development project for companies to find out whether they've hit the jackpot, or blown it all.
One cause of the delay is the intertwined but fragmented structure of the industry. Different sectors peak and bottom out at different times. For instance, the low point for foundries frequently arrives much sooner than it does for chip designers. Another reason is the industry's long lead time – it takes years to develop a chip or build a foundry, and even longer before the products make money.
Semiconductor companies are faced with the classic conundrum of whether it's technology that drives the market or the market that drives the technology. Investors should recognize that both have validity for the semiconductor industry. Here is a summary of key drivers and risks that impact fundamentals and stock prices.
What Drives Semiconductor Fundamentals and Stock Prices?
|Market share gains||Drives revenue and earnings increases||Units shipped vs. competition|
|Higher margins/profits||Absorption of higher fixed costs contributes to lower unit costs||Manufacturing process efficiencies|
|Higher product performance vs. the competition||Stimulates greater enthusiasm for end products and support||Performance results based on industry benchmarks|
What Can Go Wrong?
|Risks||Impact on Fundamentals|
|Weak economy and/or product environment||Shipment volumes may be negatively affected|
|Delayed delivery of products||Loss of revenues, profits and competitive position; potential reduction in demand for current chips|
|Sever price competition||Shrinking profit margins|
|Failure to keep up with technology||Increasing chip complexity requires more advanced processes to keep costs under control|
|A slowdown in pace of computer replacement||Depresses industry organic growth rates.|
Porter's 5 Forces Analysis
- Threat of New Entrants. In the early days of the semiconductors industry, design engineers with good ideas would often leave one company to start up another. As the industry matures, however, setting up a chip fabrication factory requires billions of dollars in investment. The cost of entry makes it painful or even impossible for all but the biggest players to keep up with state-of-the-art operations. It comes as no surprise, then, that established players have had a big advantage. Regardless, there are signs that things could be changing yet again. Semiconductor companies are forming alliances to spread out the costs of manufacturing. Meanwhile, the appearance and success of "fabless" chip makers suggests that factory ownership may not last as a barrier to entry.
- Power of Suppliers. For the large semiconductor companies, suppliers have little power - many semiconductor companies have hundreds of suppliers. This diffusion of risk over many companies allows the chip giant to keep the bargaining power of any one supplier to a minimum. However, with production getting hugely expensive, many smaller chip makers are becoming increasingly dependent on a handful of large foundries. As the suppliers of cutting-edge equipment and production skills, merchant foundries enjoy considerable industry bargaining power. The largest U.S.-based foundry belongs to none other than IBM – which is also a top chip maker in its own right.
- Power of Buyers. Most of the industry's key segments are dominated by a small number of large players. This means that buyers have little bargaining power.
- Availability of Substitutes. The threat of substitutes in the semiconductors industry really depends on the segment. While intellectual property protection might stop the threat of new substitute chips for a period of time, within a short period of time companies start to produce similar products at lower prices. Copy-cat suppliers are a problem: a company that spends millions, if not billions, of dollars on the creation of a faster, more reliable chip will strive to recoup the R&D costs. But then along comes a player that reverse engineers the system and markets a similar product for a fraction of the price.
- Competitive Rivalry. The industry is marked by intense rivalries between individual companies. There is always pressure on chip makers to come up with something better, faster and cheaper than what redefined the state-of-the-art only a few months before. That pressure extends to chip makers, foundries, design labs and distributors – everyone connected to the business of bringing chips from R&D into high-tech equipment. The result is an industry that continually produces cutting-edge technology while riding volatile business conditions.
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