Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Marvell Technology: What Inflection Point?

Marvell Technology (MRVL) makes semiconductor chips for hard disk drives, cell phones, networking and telecommunications. Although for the most part Marvell has had a brilliant run since it was founded in 1995, recently the going has been rough, as reflected in its stock price. After a 52-week high of $22.87 last April, the stock closed at $15.81 yesterday, then bounced back a bit today. The release of quarter results on Thursday (the 3rd) and the analyst conference call caused a big sell off Friday, to $16.13, after closing Thursday at $18.22.

Should Marvell be abandoned, or is this a buying opportunity?

First, keep in mind that Marvell has a fiscal year that ends on January 30th. Their Q4s are typically seasonally slower than their Q3s because shipments of chips going into devices sold over the holidays typically are made in Q3. Q1 fiscal 2012 will end at the end of April; Q2 at the end of July; Q3 at the end of October.

On the other hand, a technology company with rapidly ramping revenues can sometimes overcome seasonal declines. Marvell has lined up two sequential q/q declines. In Q2 revenues were $896.5 million; in Q3 $959.3 million; in Q4 $900.5 million; and for Q1 guidance is for $800 to $850 million. That is worse than normal seasonality.

Last year Marvell CEO Sehat Sutardja, at the Marvell March 4, 2010 analyst conference call, predicted that Marvell would reach an "upward inflection point" within the next twelve months. We seem to be in a downward deflection point instead. Now Mr. Sutardja is saying that revenues (and profits) will ramp again in the second half of this year (more precisely, the second half of fiscal 2012). Should we discount his prediction, given he made it before and reality proved him wrong?

Let's look at why the prior inflection point prediction went awry. The hard drive market was not as robust as expected, mainly because global PC sales did not grow much in 2010. Marvell already has more than half of the market for the controller and other chips in hard drives, and in the latest quarter those still accounted for almost half of Marvell's revenue. Even with new products ramping up, the decline in hard drive chip revenue put a big dent in projections. Marvell is competitive in controllers for solid state drives too, but is not dominant there.

The other problem was Research in Motion (RIM), although Sehat did not mention them by name, everyone knew which customer he was talking about. It isn't that RIM (maker of Blackberry phones) is itself in trouble, despite competition from Apple and Android-based devices. Marvell makes chips for only a couple of RIM models. For those models there was an inventory issue, not with too much inventory, but with a change that results in Marvell holding inventory for RIM. The main issue is that in many developing nations RIM is moving 2.5G phones, and Marvell does not have a chip for 2.5G. However, Marvell should have such a chip later this year.

So two major sources of revenue Marvell counted on were down in Q4 and will continue to be down in Q1. But the big issue, the lack of an inflection point, has to do with OPhones in China. These phones sold slowly late in 2010. Sehat believes that is mainly a matter of introducing them and prices that were too high on the original models. During 2011 a number of Marvell based OPhones will be introduced in China at far more attractive prices, yet which maintain Marvell's own profit margins.

Hence, still an upward inflection point. I don't blame potential Marvell investors to take a wait and see approach. The problem (with not buying at today's stock price) is that Marvell, even in these "bad" quarters, is generating a lot of cash. The low price/earnings ratio for the stock reflects the "show me" attitude about OPhones. If you wait for the revenue ramp to be in the rear-view mirror, the stock is going to be a lot more expensive.

So watch for OPhone news out of China. Maybe consumers there will want iPhones or other alternatives instead. But if hundreds of millions buy the new Marvell-based OPhones, Sehat and crew are going to look a lot more far-sighted than they do right now.

I own Marvell stock and understand the risk of competing against the talented people at Qualcomm, NVIDIA, Apple, etc. Right now I would not sell my Marvell stock for less than $30 per share. Come this fall, depending on the OPhone ramp, I may need to change my estimate of its value.

See also:


My March 2011 Marvell (MRVL) analyst call summary

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