'Sharp' chip inventory correction looms on horizon, warns investment banker

Double ordering, overheating of semiconductor sector, inflation, growing stockpiles = trouble ahead

The chip industry is on course for an inventory correction in the second half of 2022 or early 2023 with steep inflation, signs of end-user demand slowing, and companies building stockpiles among the causes.

This is according to a report from analysts at Jefferies Group, which advises investors on where to place their bets. And seemingly the smart money isn't currently on all suppliers in the semiconductor sector.

Infineon and STMicroelectronics, for example, were de-rated by the Group in February to an "underperform recommendation." It said today this was in the expectation that the share price of those companies wobbles before calendar year-end "as they price-in likely earnings cuts in 2023 from an inventory correction."

"This cautious view has been further reinforced," Jefferies added, by "rising inventories in the supply chain in Q1, decelerating demand in multiple segments, continuing order strength at chip vendors despite slowing demand and factory lockdown [and] a weakening macroeconomic backdrop."

PC and smartphone shipments so far in 2022 are more modest than during any quarter in the prior 24 months, when consumers rushed to buy new devices to manage through lockdown. IDC said last month global sales in calendar Q1 were down 5.1 percent year-on-year to 80.5 million units, albeit against a very strong comparison period.

The picture of global phone sales wasn't any better: shipments dropped 11 per cent to 311.2 million units in Q1, Canalys estimated.

As if to sum up the situation, China-based Semiconductor Manufacturing International Corporation said recently that demand for computers and handsets had dropped "like a rock."

Stocks of PCs are continuing to build, despite the slowdown of shipments into the channel. The average number of days of inventory in December at Dell, HP, Acer, Asustek and Lenovo was 52.7, it went up to 62.1 in March and is on track to rise to more than 70 days in Q4 – more than 20 percent higher than a peak in 2016 that precipitated a market downturn.

In the automotive industry – where global car sales declined year-on-year in Q1 – days of inventory was 52 days in Q1 and is expected to be more than 60 days in Q4, over 50 percent higher than the pre-2021 average. This sector, as we've noted on occasion, has suffered more than most due to its inflexible supply chain. Manufacturers cancelled chip orders early in the pandemic and found themselves at the back of the queue when they re-ordered.

Telco equipment makers (Nokia, Ericsson, ZTE, Cisco, Juniper and Ciena) jumped to 91.6 (up 19 per cent) days of inventory between December and March. And for semiconductor companies themselves it was up 5 percent to 96 days during the same three months.

"The inventory at chip vendors does not actually impact the inventory correction itself, as it is only inventories at their customers that are important from this point of view. However, chip inventory is an indicator of the direction of travel, especially since some of their inventory is usually held on consignment at customer location," the report added.

Perhaps most significantly, the number of inventory days at contract manufacturers including Jabil, Foxconn, Sanmina, Flextronics, Pegatron, Quanta, Compal and inventec has risen for six straight quarters, going from 62.7 in December to 66.8 in March and forecast to leap to 80 days by Q4, up 30 percent on the 2019 peak. This should act as a red flag for the chip sector, Jefferies added.

There is also "anecdotal evidence", the report said, that some stock in the supply chain is growing – though not all in the industry would agree with this.

In terms of finished goods – not raw components – Christine Leahy, CEO at CDW, the world's largest reseller, told financial analysts at the start of this month:

"The supply chain is what it is: It's not getting better. It's not getting worse."

NXP Semiconductors this week told a JP Morgan conference that it is running at between 1.5 months to 1.6 months worth of inventory in distribution. The average is 2.4 months.

CFO Bill Betz told the audience, "[I]n order to get from 1.5 to 2.4, that would mean we have to ship in – if we have the supply – $500 million into the channel and assume none of it sells through. So we have a long way to go to get it back to 2.4. And again, this is one of those leading indicators to understand how much of your demand is really real."

In its Q1 ended April 2, the IoT and automotive chip maker's revenue was hurt to the tune of $50 million due to a factory closure in Tianjin – one of the unforeseen consequences of the current situation, exemplifying why forecasting inventory corrections in this climate is hard.

For its part, Jefferies concluded:

"Given the level of shortage, double ordering and overheating of the industry, combined with a material deceleration in demand for many devices post COVID-related strength, we believe the forthcoming inventory correction could be quite sharp, leading to potentially greater earnings cuts for many companies than those seen in the 2019 and 2016 downcycles."

It warns consumer confidence is being dented by high inflation – levels in the UK and US are estimated to grow by 10 percent and 4.3 percent respectively in 2022 – and the war in Ukraine is a further cause for concern.

Veteran analyst Richard Gordon, who is practice vice president for semiconductors at Gartner, told us last month the chip industry has passed peak shortage and he was already hearing tales of cancelled orders.

This upswing cycle, seen through the lens of a pandemic, might have some more short-term twists and turns in it yet.

However, the semiconductor industry does appear to be on a downward trend, and moving from undersupply to oversupply will cause challenges for some. Yet those that make money from fabricating chips are likely used to wide fluctuations that show up in a cyclical sector. ®

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