China gives memory makers new life

A change in the way the mobile market is developing is giving Asian chip makers a way out of their woes.

For a while now Asian chip makers have been dependant on the whims of Apple and kept supply reasonably tight.

However, according to Reuters, manufacturers including Toshiba and SK Hynix are taking advantage of soaring demand for cut-price tablets and smartphones in China. They are also getting cash from new players such as Huawei.

Hong Sung-ho, an analyst at I’M Investment & Securities, said that a cautious approach in the past kept DRAM and NAND high just as demand was exploding.

But the arrival of new players on the market has moved the industry away from dependence on Apple and Samsung who could play hardball in price negotiations.

The two global heavyweights focused on the high-end market which was never a great money spinner for the memory firms. Now that is saturated and the cheap and cheerful market is catching up the Asian chip companies are cashing in.

The changes are being driven by China. Chinese smartphone makers such as Huawei, ZTE and Lenovo are weakening the dominance of Apple and Samsung, playing into the Asian chip makers’ hands.

More than 70 percent of China’s smartphone shipments are sold at $160 or less, while only 10 percent are worth more than that.

Super-cheap tablets costing less than $100 are also soaking up the RAM and DRAM supply.

HMC Investment & Securities analyst Greg Nho has noticed that while Apple has been cancelling orders, NAND prices have firmed up, largely thanks to strong demand from China.

Demand from Chinese manufacturers is more than offsetting the Apple collapse.

Prices of DRAM chips, mainly used in computers, have leapt nearly 90 percent so far this year even as PC sales have plummeted, while the market for NAND memory chips has tightened.

Outside of China, NAND chips are in demand because consumers need more memory capacity to play high-quality video and music on up-market gadgets.

HTC’s HTC One has NAND memory capacity of 64 gigabytes, four times bigger than that of most other high-end models.

Now, after ages in the doldrums, memory companies are talking about expansion. Toshiba said it would expand a production facility in Japan with an investment of nearly $300 million. Samsung is building a $7 billion NAND plant in China.

Micron is trying to buy the bankrupt Japanese chip maker Elpida Memory before the end of August, and plans to increase investment in 2014.

In these circumstances, you would expect the market to be heading for oversupply. But it seems that memory firms are actually reigning in their investments to keep the supply tight.

Part of this is common sense, but it is also because the memory makers are gearing up for three-dimensional chip engineering, a major technological leap from the current planar structure.

This means that demand for NAND chips will continue to outstrip supply, even with the new production facilities in the pipeline, at least for another year.