Applied Materials (AMAT), the semiconductor capital equipment maker, reported better than expected revenue and earnings Thursday for its first quarter fiscal 2012 ending January 30, 2012. Although the stock traded up after-hours on Thursday, by the end of day Friday it closed at $12.99, down $0.22 or 1.7% from the Thursday close.
Last quarter Applied management stated they believed they were past the bottom of the order cycle, but that revenues were not likely to start increasing until the second half of 2012. The lag is because semiconductor equipment is not made until after it is ordered, and customers sometimes place orders well in advance of their required delivery times.
Prior guidance was that Q1 revenue would be down 5% to 15% sequentially. Q1 Revenue were $2.19 billion, up 0.5% sequentially from $2.18 billion. Despite that revenue was down 18.5% from $2.69 billion in the year-earlier quarter.
The difference between guidance and results was mostly because a couple of large foundries (plants where semiconductor chips are manufactured) placed unexpected orders and took delivery faster than expected on Q4 orders. Most of this unexpected bonus was to fabricate mobile application processors, which are the hearts of tablet computers and smartphones. These processors are becoming more complicated, often adding computer cores as well as peripheral functions. This means die sizes become larger, so more dies must be processed, and more equipment lines installed. The number of units of smartphones and tablets sold globally is also expanding rapidly.
Two other Applied Materials segments, display technology and solar, did poorly as expected and are not believed likely to recover much in 2012.
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. Growth comes in two forms: more equipment to pump out more units, and new equipment for chips that work with smaller transistors.
In addition to continued strong demand for mobile-specific devices, PC demand is expected to rebound in 2012 as the hard-drive shortage bottleneck disappears. In addition, Windows 8 could be a driver if it releases as expected this Fall.
While we are probably now past the bottom of the order cycle for semiconductor production equipment, the exact nature and extent of the ramp remains to be seen. Guidance for Q2 is for revenues to be up sequentially between 5% and 15%. We are far enough into Q2, and enough shipments were ordered back in Q1 or even Q4, that investors can probably count on that.
Since (at Friday's closing price) Applied pays a dividend of 2.42% ($0.08 per quarter), I see Applied Materials as one of the safest technology stocks to invest in. Earnings in Q1 were $0.09 GAAP, $0.19 non-GAAP, so even in a slow quarter there was plenty of cash generated to cover the dividend. Despite using $4.2 billion to acquire Varian in the quarter, Applied's cash balance ended near $3 billion.
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 (and its competitors) provide.
I am also excited about Applied's acquisition of Varian, but I'll save that for a different article.
For more details about Q1 results, including questions by analysts, see my Applied Materials Q1 2012 Analyst Call summary.
Disclaimer: I have a long position in Applied Materials (AMAT), with a long term view. I will not trade in AMAT for at least 7 days after this article is published.
And keep diversified!