On August 18th Applied Materials (AMAT) released Q2 results and held the analyst conference call for the quarter. For those trying to see where the electronics industry is heading, it was an important call.
Consumers choosing new computers, smartphones, and big screen displays recognize a limited number of brand name device makers like Apple, HP, Sony, Dell, Nokia, etc. Each of their devices is engineered from a number of components including the casings, displays, and electronic parts. A wide variety of semiconductor parts makers like Intel, AMD, Broadcom, Qualcomm, Marvell, TI, etc., compete to be chosen by the device maker; those are the design wins that point to whether a semiconductor company will grow or fade.
The semiconductor chips themselves are made with specialty capital equipment that must lay down the microscopic circuits that make the magic happen. Every few years the size of the circuit elements decreases, so fabs (after fabrication factories) must buy new capital equipment to provide for cutting edge chip production. A number of steps and hence machines are involved in the process for creating silicon wafers, cleaning, making masks, infusing them with dopants, adding insulators, etching, etc., and testing. As you may have heard lately from, for instance, NVIDIA, when new machines start to come online it often takes time to get them working well enough that the number of defects decreases to the point that most of the chips work when tested.
Applied Materials makes equipment to make semiconductor chips, solar panels, and LCD display panels. 2009 was a dry year. With end consumer (including industrial consumers) demand down for electronic devices, the fabs had plenty of capacity. Orders to AMAT consisted mainly of a few forward-looking fabs that knew that they had to keep shrinking transistors to serve their clients with the most advanced technological needs.
2010, on the other hand, has seen enough return of demand to restart the cycle for Applied. A lot of older production technology was taken off line in 2009. Now most fabs need not just new technology but capacity expansion as well.
Applied Materials has competition in each of its lines, some more so than others. With revenues of $2.52 billion in Q2 2010, up 10% sequentially from $2.30 billion and up 123% from $1.13 billion in Q2 2009, you can see the difference a year makes.
However, management is predicting that Q3 revenue will be flattish to up 5% over Q2. The main semiconductor equipment business is expected to be about flat. Services revenue looks up 10%. LCD display equipment revenue could be up 20%. But there will likely be a 10% to 20% drop in crystalline solar revenues. In addition the thin-film solar (SunFab) business is being reorganized because few governments, banks and companies wanted to take the risk of creating the very-large scale plants required for efficient thin-film operations.
Because fabs are scrambling to deal with current demand levels, a mild softening in the world economy would not cause them to put off plans to buy new equipment. In fact, it could take another year just to catch up. If, like me, you believe a gradual re-acceleration in the global economy is the most likely scenario, then this up cycle for Applied and other semiconductor equipment manufacturers is still in its opening phase.
If non-GAAP comes in at the middle of the guidance range, $0.30 per share, that would annualize to $1.20. At today's closing price of $10.99 per share, investors will be getting earnings of 10.9% per share. That sure beats the returns on bonds and CDs.
See also my notes on Applied Materials Q2 2010 analyst call;
Applied Materials site