If anyone at Intel's ( INTC) corporate headquarters in Santa Clara, Calif., was inclined to play the blame game for its
uninspiring third-quarter report , thy might point a finger to one of its best customers -- Dell ( DELL). The giant PC maker, says Citigroup analyst Glen Yeung, is probably the company responsible for much of the $100 million inventory buildup that pushed Intel's fourth-quarter revenue guidance below expectations. "We cannot help but conclude that Intel was misled by over-ordering from a small number of their major customers, likely for high-end chipsets and microprocessors. We believe the principal culprit for this excess ordering is Dell as they transition from a volume strategy to a profit/high-end strategy," Yeung wrote in a note to clients. Citigroup has an investment banking relationship with Intel. Although $100 million is a small number for a company as large as Intel -- CFO Andy Bryant points out that it represents just two days of semiconductor shipments -- the market is focused on the build and the relatively weak revenue guidance for the crucial fourth quarter. In recent trading, shares were off 49 cents, or 2%, to $23.23. Record third-quarter sales, news that the company expects a sharp jump in gross margins during the fourth quarter and a strong new product pipeline are, for now, very much in the background. "The numbers were not all that bad, but semiconductor investors look at momentum," says Sunil Reddy, a senior portfolio manager with Fifth Third Asset Management, which has a position in Intel and manages $21 billion in assets. Although the stock is trading at a low valuation, there are a host of factors prompting investors to wait before buying back in: the weak guidance, the approach of the seasonally slow first quarter and macro concerns over interest rates and the health of the economy. "I don't see an immediate catalyst for the stock," he says.
In the earnings report delivered late Tuesday, Intel said fourth-quarter sales will likely range from $10.2 billion to $10.8 billion. At the $10.5 billion midpoint, that represents sequential growth of 5%, "materially less than the company's 11-year average growth rate
in the December quarter of 11%," says Prudential analyst Mark Lipacis, whose company does not have an investment banking relationship with Intel. Analysts were expecting growth of about 8%, to $10.7 billion in sales, according to Thomson First Call. Intel's share price is generally tied to gross margins, so with the company saying margins will jump to around 63% in the fourth quarter you'd think investors would be happy. But Lipacis notes that the company's margins have ranged from 49% to 62% over 11 years, with an average of 56%. Wall Street, it seems, believes that margins are peaking, and the likely move in the future is down. There is, however, another take on margins. Intel is moving its production to a new process called 65-nanometer, which allows it to build more chips with the same amount of silicon because the transistors are closer together than the current 90-nanometer process allows. As a result, unit costs drop and margins go up. Intel is targeting a 25% decrease in unit costs from 2004 to 2006, and is currently ahead of schedule on that plan, Bryant said during Tuesday's conference call. Not everyone is buying the bear case on Intel. One manager, who spoke privately, is planning to buy shares today. "Sure, the market would like it if Intel raised guidance -- but then they'd spend the next 89 days worrying if they can achieve it. These numbers are achievable and that lowers the risk," he said. Also reducing the risk is the downward movement of the stock and changes in EPS estimates, which have lowered Intel's forward P/E 14 times forward earnings estimates.
What's more, Intel is now shipping dual-core processors, and will ship many more in 2006. And that, said the manager, will help close the technology gap with its major rival, Advanced Micro Devices ( AMD). Still, Intel is vulnerable to shifts in the economy that could slow the expected growth in PC sales. In discussing margins, Bryant was careful to note that he has to "keep the factories full." If buyers take a holiday, all bets are off.