Applied Materials (AMAT), the semiconductor capital equipment maker, reported stronger than expected revenues and earnings for its first quarter of fiscal 2011 ending January 31, 2011. Revenue growth was up 45% year over year. Yet its PE (price/earnings) ratio is far lower than most technology stocks with similar growth records.
Trying to place a bet on tablet computers or smart phones? You can bet on the brands like Apple, Motorola, and Samsung. Or you can bet on the companies that supply the chips to make the tablets work, for instance, Qualcomm, TI, NVIDIA, Marvell and others. These are all pretty well known companies, but who really knows who consumers will be in love with in 2 years? Who knows whose chips two years from now will be winning the majority of slots in the new machines?
One thing you can pretty much count on: the constituent parts for tablet computers will be manufactured by someone. When it comes to actually making the silicon, Applied Materials is the dominant supplier of the necessary equipment.
In 2008 and 2009 Applied Materials had a rough time. No new capacity was needed; even shrinks (to smaller transistor sizes) were put off as long as possible. But because the company was well managed and had plenty of cash, it navigated successfully through the recession.
In 2010 Applied came roaring back as fabrication companies started making up for lost time.
Are people going to be satisfied with the computational or memory powers of 2010 style tablets and smart phones? No. The ARM processors are (so far) no match for the silicon from AMD or Intel that is available in a desktop or notebook computer. People may want portability, but they still want highly capable, fast machines. That means cramming more transistors onto chips, and using new technologies that keep voltage and power requirements down. In turn, to achieve that, the fabs need new machines capable of imprinting silicon with ever smaller patterns.
As reported in the Applied Materials February 24, 2011 analyst conference call, different aspects of the industry are at different points in their supply demand cycle. Fortunately overall the cycle is heading up. Display equipment sales will likely be weak in 2011, in part because tablet and smart phone displays are so much smaller than monitor and TV displays. But demand for most major types of silicon chips is headed up, as is demand for the equipment used to make crystalline silicon solar cells.
With $0.38 per share GAAP earnings in Q1 and about the same expected in Q2, it is fair to guess that fiscal 2011 earning will indeed hit at least $1.50 per share, which is AMAT's guidance.
While growth in 2011 won't be as strong as in 2010, I still see Applied's PE rising eventually to about 20. That would put it at $30 per share and still give it a 5% earnings return. As I write this you can buy the stock for just $16.36 per share. Note too that Applied has plenty of cash and pays a $0.28 annual dividend. I'd like to see that dividend raised to something more like a third of earnings, but other than that I think Applied Materials is a great company for stock holders.
See also: www.appliedmaterials.com