Double-dip looms over chip industry

Chip manufacturer TSMC has admitted that its strong growth targets look unlikely and out of reach because, of course, the market demand isn’t quite what it expected.

However, its CEO Morris Chang still believes it will outclass the industry average elsewhere for 2011 as a whole. Originally it wanted to hit 20 percent growth in sales. Digitimes believes TSMC knew what was up in the second quarter when it saw utilisation rates drop, and that its targets were too ambitious.

The belief is that end-market demand has slumped, despite additional foundry capacity, and as a result foundries have seen their average selling prices drop.

In fact, global foundry market growth for 2011 is expected to reach just five percent, compared to TSMC’s lofty seven precent predictions. 

Malcolm Penn, chief analyst at Future Horizons, tells TechEye that there are plenty of reasons the overall outlook is muddled, and that TSMC had the opportunity to get its act together.

“The issue is twofold but with a fundamental same common cause,” Penn begins, “manic short-termism and chronic over-reaction to the hourly drip-feed of data deluge and overload.

“We are just emerging form the summer silly season madness and, yes, TSMC should be firing on all cylinders by now given its August sales are its client’s September, the seasonally strong Q3, billings, so clearly we’re off to a slow start.”

The industry is saying it’s all about demand, demand, demand and little to do with the disruptions from the tragedies in Japan, however, as TSMC’s main rival GlobalFoundries is using the tsunami as a talking point to win contracts – it claims its foundries are relatively disaster-zone free – it’s hard to swallow entirely.

Meanwhile, others in Taiwan think that the tablet trend has caused confusion and, overall, semiconductors will be on track for a quarterly decline.

But being on the brink of, possibly, a double dip means there is bound to be a domino effect.

“The current bad economic data – especially from the US – is part of the problem together with the recent US political standoff on their debt ceiling issue,” Penn tells us. “Talk about irresponsibly holding the world economy to ransom for some selfish political mileage. And Europe’s equally shabby ‘leadership’ refusing to square up to the fact ‘Essex girl’ Greece is maxed out on her credit cards and is bust.

“Japan is like a rabbit frozen in the headlights and the UK stuck in a ‘principle’ issue of Titanic type blindness! Little wonder global economic confidence is sour; there is no concerted global effort to stop the west drifting back into recession, the much ‘awaited’ double dip, given the abysmally poor political leadership.

“So even if the emerging economies motor on, with half the world on its knees, it’s not enough to stop the whole slowing. The overall impact is the FUD – fear, uncertainty and doubt – factor is in control which means people, business and consumers, are putting off buying decisions, at least in the short-term.

“The impact of the quake has also been reasonably muddled through, at least on the surface, helped by the slowdown in demand which has taken the pressure off the typically strong 2H-11.”

All said and done, the semiconductor industry isn’t dead on its behind, far from it. Penn outlines some reasons shareholders needn’t panic.

“But, that said, the underlying conditions are still incredibly strong. Interest rates are low, with no sign yet of them increasing,” Penn says. “Banks are happy to lend money, at least to those who can afford to pay it back.

“Capacity is still tighter than the proverbial DA, with investment strongly cut back for the past 9 months in a row Inventories are still low, which means no stockpiles or safety stocks, despite the earthquake warning shot across the bows.

“The NAND flash market has already turned, DRAMs are in trouble but that’s structural not the market. Tablets are still selling, but only if it’s an iPad … this is a fashion item; you don’t buy Wall Mart’s trainers when your heart screams Nike.

“Chances are confidence will creep back, once the world doesn’t implode over the next few weeks and there’ll be a mad late-Q3 scramble as everyone tries to react to the delayed, pent-up demand. With no slack in the system – lessons were not learnt from Fukishima – there’ll be surprises all round when the market tries to recover.

“Hey ho. Words like piss up and brewery spring to mind, yet we’re paying these execs seven figure salaries, quite for what beggars belief!”