(Jan 30): This time was supposed to be different.
The memory-chip sector, famous for its boom-and-bust cycles, had changed its ways. A combination of more disciplined management and new markets for its products — including 5G technology and cloud services — would ensure that companies delivered more predictable earnings.
And yet, less than a year after memory companies made such pronouncements, the US$160 billion industry is suffering one of its worst routs ever. There’s a glut of the chips sitting in warehouses, customers are cutting orders, and product prices have plunged.
“The chip industry thought that suppliers were going to have better control,” said Avril Wu, senior research vice president at TrendForce. “This downturn has proved everybody was wrong.”
The unprecedented crisis isn’t just wiping out cash at industry leaders SK Hynix Inc and Micron Technology Inc, but also destabilizing their suppliers, denting Asian economies that rely on tech exports, and forcing the few remaining memory players to form alliances or even consider mergers.
It’s been a swift descent from the industry’s pandemic sales surge, which was fuelled by shoppers outfitting home offices and snapping up computers, tablets and smartphones. Now consumers and businesses are holding off on big purchases as they cope with inflation and rising interest rates. Makers of those devices, the main buyers of memory chips, are suddenly stuck with stockpiles of components and have no need for more.
Already, Samsung Electronics Co and its rivals are losing money on every chip they produce. Their collective operating losses are projected to hit a record US$5 billion this year. Inventories — a critical indicator of demand for memory chips — have more than tripled to record levels, reaching three to four months’ worth of supply.
Samsung looks to be the only one that will escape relatively unscathed, thanks to its heft and diversified business, but even the South Korean giant’s semiconductor division is headed toward losses. Investors will get a sense of the damage this week when the company reports quarterly earnings.
The industry is suffering from a unique combination of circumstances — a pandemic hangover, the war in Ukraine, historic inflation and supply-chain disruptions — that have made the slump much worse than a regular cyclical downturn.
Micron, the last remaining US memory chipmaker, has responded aggressively to plummeting demand. The company said late last month that it will cut its budget for new plants and equipment in addition to reducing output. The rate at which the industry rights itself will depend on how quickly the company’s counterparts make similar moves, chief executive officer Sanjay Mehrotra said.
“We have to get through this cycle,” he said. “I believe the trend of cross-cycle growth and profitability is still in place.”
Over in South Korea, Hynix has also slashed investments and scaled back output. The company’s inventory glut is partly the result of its acquisition of Intel Corp’s flash memory business — a deal struck before the industry’s decline.
All eyes are now on memory-chip king Samsung, which has thus far said little about the industry’s near-term prospects. The world’s largest maker of chips, smartphones and display panels is set to report fourth-quarter earnings on Tuesday, followed by a call during which analysts are likely to question its capacity management plans.
The Korean tech giant has typically continued to spend during downturns, hoping to exit them with superior production and higher profitability when demand picks up. This time around, the market has been betting the company will tighten its chip supply, lifting its stock price in recent weeks.
Chip-manufacturing equipment maker Lam Research Corp said last week that it’s seeing an unprecedented reduction in orders as memory customers cut and postpone spending. Executives at the company, which counts Samsung, SK Hynix and Micron as its top customers, declined to predict when such actions might help the memory market rebound.
“We’ve seen extraordinary measures within the memory market,” Lam CEO Tim Archer said on a call with investors. “It’s at levels that we haven’t seen in 25 years.”
It’s always been difficult for memory makers to handle spikes and troughs in demand. Bringing new factories online takes years and billions of dollars, so it’s hard to get the timing right.
The risks have prompted companies in the industry to get more conservative. They’re more focused on profitability than trying to grow quickly and gain market share.
That’s especially true for so-called DRAM chips, where the three dominant suppliers — Samsung, Hynix and Micron — are reducing supply, said Shin Jinho, co-CEO of Midas International Asset Management. The other major part of the memory market, NAND chips, is more fragmented and is set to go through a more severe battle as the many contenders fight for survival, he said.
“The NAND market is experiencing fierce competition and the recovery will follow one quarter after the DRAM market recovery,” Shin said. “If the situation gets longer, eventually, we are going to see consolidation in the NAND market.”
The memory industry had mergers during previous downturns, and this one may be no exception. NAND makers Western Digital Corp and Kioxia Holdings Corp are progressing in their deal talks, people familiar with the matter said this month. Still, the companies already manufacture jointly and thus a merger won’t necessarily lead to reduced output.
The longer-term question is when customers’ demand will bounce back. China’s recent exit from Covid-related restrictions could be one catalyst to help the industry, as gadget makers will be able to bring manufacturing plants back to normal rhythm, said Greg Roh, head of technology research at HMC Investment & Securities.
“There will be pent-up demand for gadgets as well,” Roh said. “Our view is that memory will recover in the second half.”