Because I own stock in Marvell Technologies (MRVL), which gets about half of its revenue from sales of HDD controller chips, I read a detailed interview with Steve Luczo, the CEO of Seagate Technology (STX) [See Seagate CEO Interview at Forbes]. Seagate is one of only 2 remaining major hard disk drive (HDD) manufacturers. The other is Western Digital (WDC). While I already agreed with the overall HDD story, Steve made some very good points that I had not thought of or heard before.
In addition to MRVL and STX, I'll be discussing semiconductor manufacturing capital equipment makers Applied Materials (AMAT) and KLA (KLAC) as well as Dot Hill (HILL), EMC, AMD, and Intel (INTC).
Let's tackle the Thailand flooding aftermath before taking on long-term trends. Industry-wide, quarterly unit sales were projected to be 180 million before the floods hit. Instead Q4 2011 production was 120 million units. Q1 production rose to 140 million units, Q2 expectations are 160 million units, and Q3 should be back to 180 million. If there are still shortages, Q4 could see between 180 and 200 million units produced.
In addition, as the year progresses industry average drive capacity will increase as new, high-capacity equipment replaces older machines damaged by the flooding.
For makers of parts that go into the drives, that is good news. It is also good news for PC and server manufacturers (and suppliers like AMD and Intel (INTC)) that have been constrained by HDD shortages. In Marvell's case, they report quarters with a one-month lag and also ship pre-production. That means that Marvell is currently in a quarter that runs February to April. April chips will go in May HDDs, so run rates should be pretty good by then. It is possible that Marvell's July quarter will be back to record HDD controller chip shipments.
Overall expectations are that once we get past Q1, this should be a banner year for almost everyone in the storage industry, with good margins (because shortages will persist) and unit shipments improving markedly in the second half.
But aren't Solid State Drives (SSD's) going to replace HDDs, which are not used in tablet computers, smartphones, or possibly in thin and light notebook models? Should investors continue to flee the entire HDD industry? Why else, except investor flight, would Seagate have a forward P/E of just 4.1?
Luczo does not think so. The anti-HDD argument that has been around investor circles for some time is that as SSDs become mass-market, and technologies shrink, SSD capacities will go up, prices will come down, and HDD demand will decline in short order.
The typical counter argument is that data storage requirements are based on the expanding storage needs of the world. Storage is a volume business, so while SSDs may provide speed, HDDs need to continue to improve both capacity and units shipped just to keep up with expanding volumes of data, particularly video data. For every iPad there has to be disk capacity in the cloud somewhere, because iPads mostly need to connect to data stored on disks in the cloud to be useful.
The stronger argument is this: semiconductor fabs cannot be built fast enough to make the SSD replacing HDD dream come true, not anytime soon, if ever.
A new semiconductor fab (factory) is a very expensive investment at $10 billion. If the chips produced by the fabs (in this case mainly memory chips) are not expensive enough, building a new fab is a money loser. In effect the prices for chips are set by the capital required to build the fabs.
It is much, much cheaper to add data storage production capacity, on a byte basis, by building new HDD factories than by building new semi fabs. The same data capacity expansion could be achieved with less than $1 billion in capital, Thus HDDs will have a considerable price advantage for the reasonably visible future.
Technology investors have learned that when a technology is dying, you might as well exit. Some companies role well from one technology generation to another, as Intel has. But the point here is that the HDD industry is not dying. The SSD industry can grow rapidly for an entire decade and the HDD industry will still be far larger at the end of the decade than it is today, and than the SSD industry will be. Of course many companies will play both sides of the SSD/HDD game, and hybrid drives are already available.
But suppose Luczo is wrong in the sense that chip manufacturers do decide to invest rapidly in fabs to drive as much SSD expansion as quickly as possible. I still think Seagate is undervalued in that scenario, but there would be other winners. The obvious ones are the semiconductor equipment manufacturers whose machines make the silicon wafers and create the tiny transistors that make up Flash memory. There are still a number of companies in this category, but as capital requirements increase this segment is consolidating as well. Two big players that should gain from SSD fab accelerations are Applied Materials (which recently acquired Varian), and KLA-Tencor. Both currently have attractive P/Es that do not reflect any future boom in the SSD industry.
Meanwhile data storage equipment makers from giants like EMC and HP to specialists like Dot Hill should continue to do well, since the systems they manufacture can accommodate both SSDs and HDDs, depending on the needs of the end customers.
Disclaimer: I own MRVL, AMAT, and HILL. I do not own STX, WDS, KLA, INTC, or EMC. I won't trade in any of these stocks for 3 days after this article is published.