Friday, December 9, 2011

Applied Materials See Cycle Bottom

Applied Materials (AMAT), the semiconductor capital equipment maker, had a very difficult fourth quarter of fiscal 2011 ending October 30th. The stock is trading trading today around $11.20 per share, less than 8 times earnings and not that much above its 52 week low of $9.70 touched on October 4.

Yet revenue for the fiscal year set a record. Applied Materials and other semiconductor equipment makers tend to be very cyclical because demand for new equipment is only strong when semiconductor end use is ramping. It looked like calendar 2011 would continue to be part of a strong up cycle that started in 2010, but global economic turmoil and weak consumer electronics end demand has made chip makers and the foundries that serve fabless chip makers reluctant to increase capacity.

Sales continue because even during slow periods there are advantages to moving to new process technologies that put more transistors on any given area of chip surface. Applied Materials also derives considerable revenue from related services. Its services division contributed $629 million in revenue in the quarter.

Total Q4 revenue was $2.18 billion, down 22% sequentially from $2.79 billion and down 25% from $2.89 billion in the year-earlier quarter. GAAP net income was $456 million, down 4% sequentially from $476 million and down 3% from $468 million year-earlier. GAP EPS (earnings per share) were $0.34, down 6% sequentially from $0.36 and down 3% from $0.35 year-earlier.

Non-GAAP net income was $271 million, down sequentially from $467 million and also down from $476 million year-earlier. EPS $0.21. The vastly lower non-GAAP than GAAP earnings were mostly due to a $203 adjustment to the prior-year's income tax filings.

Despite the poor quarter, cash flow from operations was near $700, or about $425 million excluding the income tax refund. Cash and equivalents were over $7 billion.

The stock pays a dividend of $8 per quarter per share. Management reiterated that they are committed to increasing the dividend, but stock buy backs are the preferred method of returning profits to shareholders. The acquisition of Varian Semiconductor will put a temporary crimp in cash, but is a good long-term move.

Which brings us back to the question of where we are in the cycle. To some extent that depends on the global economy. It is also sector-specific, as capacity utilization and end demand growth differ for sectors like RAM, Flash memory, application-specific chips and display technology.

Applied Materials management has had decades of experience with these cycles. They expect the first half of their fiscal year 2012 to be difficult. In particular Q1 fiscal 2012 (ending January 30th) guidance was for revenues down sequentially another 5% to 15%. However, they believe they are already past the bottom of the order cycle. Because we are talking about capital equipment, when the order cycle starts trending upward it can be six months before actual revenues start trending back up.

Flash and mobile processor capacity utilization are already high, so any further increase in demand should generate equipment orders. However, RAM capacity is plentiful, so we probably won't see a big uptick in revenues until demand catches up to capacity in that segment, probably later in 2012.

Despite unevenness, we are still in a global economic ramp with billions of consumers set to acquire smartphones in the next 3 years (600 million in China alone). Everyone wants devices that do more with less power, and the only way to get that is with new semiconductor manufacturing capabilities. It does not matter who wins the smartphone race; everyone needs the kind of semiconductor manufacturing solutions Applied Materials provides.

For more details about Q4 results, including questions by analysts, see my Applied Materials Q4 2011 Analyst Call summary.

Disclaimer: I have a long position in Applied Materials (AMAT), with a long term view. I have no plans to change my position anytime soon.

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