Sebastian Hou told CNBC at the CLSA Investors' Forum in Hong Kong that ongoing tariff battles between the world’s two largest economies isn’t the only issue that’s weighing on demand for memory chips. Other worrying signs, he added, include a decline in prices, a build-up in inventory levels and less appetite from customers in high-growth areas, such as data center servers, automotive and industrial.
"In terms of the trade war impact, certainly there is some impact on the potential on the demand side but even without the trade war, in fact, the sector is going to go through this correction because (of) very high inventory across the supply chain," Hou said.
Last year, semiconductor revenues grew 21.6% to $420.4 billion, according to Gartner, as undersupply helped to drive prices higher. With supply now building up as appetite tails off, Hou agreed with the research firm that sales are unlikely to grow at all in 2019.
"Starting from the fourth quarter this year to fourth quarter next year, ... some quarters, some months, we're likely to see negative year-over-year growth of semiconductor," he said.
Hou noted that high inventory levels are likely to be the result of companies building up stock to cater to new technologies, including artificial intelligence, the fifth-generation of mobile networks and the Internet of Things. However, he also advised investors to dial back their expectations about these trends, adding that they are “still in the infant and early stage.” (See also: Chip Stocks on Verge of Big Breakout: Todd Gordon.)
Hou argued that eventually demand for new applications could revitalize the semiconductor industry once the cyclical downturn he predicted ends. At the same time, he warned investors that the biggest players operating in the market, including Samsung Electronics Co., Intel Corp. (INTC), SK Hynix Inc. and Micron Technology Inc. (MU), may struggle to rediscover their previous sales tallies, particularly as many major technology and internet companies are now working on developing their own memory chips.
Hou’s bearish observations came several days after Morgan Stanley analyst Shawn Kim painted a similarly bleak picture of the semiconductor industry. (See also: Micron, Chip Stocks at Risk of Deteriorating Industry Fundamentals: Morgan Stanley.)