Monday, September 19, 2011

AMD at the Earnings Crossroads

AMD (Advanced Micro Devices) has only two competitors in its niche: Intel (INTC) for CPUs (computer processing chips) that run x86 software and NVIDIA (NVDA) for GPUs (graphics processing chips). How much market share it takes in the PC chip market, and what margins it receives on the chips it does sell, determines its levels of revenue and profit or loss.

Historically, while AMD has been innovative, it has come in a far second against Intel and NVIDIA. In the last two years it has lost ground to Intel and gained ground from NVIDIA. The picture has been complicated further by the emergence of ARM architecture based processors as the preferred basis for smaller mobile devices like smartphones and tablet computers.

After years of development (usually corresponding to quarterly earnings losses) this year AMD is selling chips that combine a CPU and a GPU. Intel, also, has appended graphics to its new line of CPUs, but their chips are remarkably inferior, incapable of running the current Windows graphics standard, DirectX 11. As a result AMD has been selling all the Fusion chips it has been able to make.

Why then, the lack of excitement and lack of upward momentum in AMD stock? Today AMD closed at $6.92, well off its 52-week high of $9.58 and with an astonishingly low P/E ratio of 6.4, the kind you would expect from a declining industry stock.

For the moment the most visible cutting edge technology is in smartphones and Apple and Android based small tablets. That pretty much sums up tech investor thinking about AMD: that a tidal wave of 7 inch screens are going to replace PCs, including both notebook computers and desktops that can run 60 inch displays.

Let's say you have discovered the limits of small screen computing and think there is still life left in the larger form factors. How should AMD be priced then?

First—even if the economy lags, even if consumers are careful with their holiday electronics purchases, even if the economies of India and China don't grow quite as fast in 2011 as they did in 2010—in Q3 and more so in Q4 AMD will get a significant boost in profits from its new Bulldozer CPUs for the server market. They began shipping in quantity earlier this month, with most of the early allotment going directly into the supercomputer market, where they will replace, or fill empty slots in, the prior generations of AMD Opteron processors. Profit margins are better for server chips than for PC chips. AMD has lost a lot of market share to Intel in server chips these last five years. The new chips should help regain market share. They have a different architecture than the Intel chips, and hence are very cost effective at certain workloads. Bulldozer is not a conquer-the-world chip, but it will keep AMD in the most profitable part of the server CPU game.

On the down side, there are so many rumors about yields (% of good processors on a die) being poor for the Fusion chips, that I think it is fair we can treat the rumors as true. At the next AMD analyst conference there should be a question about that. At the Q2 conference the closest answer we got was that margins were good on the Fusion chips. If both are true, and AMD was right about 2nd half margin improvements, then what we have is upside potential. Yields usually improve over time; if margins are already good, they should be great when yields improve. The problem was doubtless forging the CPU and GPU on the same die; traditionally these chip types used different silicon technologies. Bulldozer yields are rumored to be good, but then these server chips don't have a GPU component.

For now I would take Q3 guidance as a fair range. The economy might push revenues down, but yield improvements could push margins up. Guidance was for Q3 revenue to increase 8 to 12% sequentially. Note that because of holiday demand, Q3 is typically the strongest quarter for AMD.

The numbers, when reported, give us hard data, but the technology trends rule long-term value. I think AMD (and for that matter Intel) are over-discounted. I think both will be taking market share in the tablet market in 2012 and 2013. I think the PC market will stay healthier than most pundits predict. Consumers and businesses who skipped a desktop or notebook upgrade to buy a tablet and smartphone will get back on the upgrade cycle.

The combination of full-powered GPUs and CPUs on a single chip may be more revolutionary than the smartphone. Essentially, we are introducing desktop (or even notebook) parallel supercomputing. We are just beginning to see software applications that utilize either a CPU plus separate GPU or the new Fusion chips. So watch for companies like Microsoft, Adobe, and Autodesk, as well as lesser-known companies and startups, to take advantage of this new paradigm.

Disclosure: I am long AMD.

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