When trying to gauge the factors behind the downbeat outlooks recently provided by some chip developers, it's often hard to determine how much blame falls on weakening demand within end-markets vs. traditional cyclical factors that might not last for too long.
In many cases, the sales warnings and subdued outlooks issued by chip developers feel like a combination of both factors at work. Chip buyers have industry-specific reasons for cutting orders, but also prefer to order cautiously due to greater macro uncertainty and/or greater confidence that they can up their orders in the future without having to worry about supply shortages.
The soft guidance delivered by iPhone chip and component suppliers over the last couple of weeks might be a good case in point. Softer-than-expected iPhone XR demand appears to be a factor behind the guidance cuts given by firms such as Lumentum (LITE - Get Report) and Qorvo (QRVO - Get Report) . However, with Apple (AAPL - Get Report) having signaled on its Nov. 1 earnings call that it's seeing some weakness in emerging markets such as India, Brazil and Russia and with the company having said it's guiding cautiously partly due to macro concerns, it wouldn't be surprising if Apple is choosing to be conservative with its iPhone chip-order and production plans.
Moreover, the fact that global smartphone demand is currently soft and that the mobile chip industry is about to enter a seasonally weaker part of the year, might give Apple confidence that it can hike its chip orders in the future without trouble should demand prove better than feared.
Nvidia's (NVDA - Get Report) downbeat January-quarter sales guidance clearly has an industry-specific culprit: Retailers that had been aggressively buying midrange graphics cards to satisfy demand from cryptocurrency miners are paring back their orders following a collapse in mining-related demand, with the goal of clearing out inventories.
However, the magnitude of their inventory-clearing efforts, together with the fact that they're taking place several months after demand from miners started falling sharply, gives the impression that customers are exercising caution with their orders.
The fact that Chinese graphics-card imports are now subject to a 10% tariff could be on the minds of graphics-card makers when deciding how many cards to build. So might recent Intel (INTC - Get Report) PC CPU shortages, and the fact that the first quarter is a seasonally weak time for industry demand.
Meanwhile, the light guidance delivered by several automotive- and industrial-chip suppliers, including NXP Semiconductors (NXPI - Get Report) , STMicroelectronics (STM - Get Report) and Cypress Semiconductor (CY - Get Report) , feels quite a lot like the guidance cuts seen in prior moderate, cyclical downturns in which inventory corrections played a large role. A number of these companies have reported seeing softer Chinese demand -- chips used for industrial and white-label goods have been mentioned as areas of softness -- with some of them indicating macro and tariff-related worries are playing roles.
At the same time, some of these firms still report seeing healthy demand in end-markets such as mobile infrastructure, electric cars and IoT devices. Likewise, while its mid-range GPU sales have plummeted, Nvidia still reports seeing good demand from its server, automotive and workstation end-markets, as well as for new high-end gaming GPUs.
The upshot: Investors shouldn't assume that the guidance cuts being delivered by major chip developers are solely due to demand issues. If macro conditions hold up better than feared, chip buyers that are currently being conservative with their ordering activity could start behaving differently.
(Editor's Pick. Originally published Nov. 16.)