New Qualcomm CEO Faces China Shakedown

NEW YORK (TheStreet) -- Qualcomm (QCOM), long a no-brainer on technology buy lists, may be about to become a battleground stock.

The company's chips and licensing fees dominate the mobile phone market. They're a must in both networking gear and phones. This has allowed it to grow its top line by about 30% per year since 2010, with profits that have more than doubled since that time and a dividend that has reached 35 cents per quarter.

Qualcomm shares were trading down 68 cents, or 0.9%, Wednesday morning at $75.60.

The stock's price-to-earnings ratio is a rich 20.65, and the rising dividend still yields just 1.85%. Contrast that with Intel's (INTC) 13.1 P/E and 3.63% yield.

Qualcomm's price jumped on its earnings report last month, when it reported revenue of $6.62 billion, up 10% from a year earlier, and adjusted earnings per share of $1.26, which topped analysts expectations by 8 cents.

The company further boosted its dominant mobile patent position by buying 1,400 patents from Hewlett-Packard (HPQ), including those related to the webOS mobile operating system.

But Qualcomm starts breaking in a new CEO next month just as China moves to shake down the company over its licensing fees and dominance of the communication chip market. It has also just announced a product failure, less than one month after a product launch.

Is Qualcomm losing its grip?

Few think Steve Mollenkopf, 44, isn't up to the CEO challenge. He was reportedly under consideration as Microsoft (MSFT) CEO last year (the job that eventually went to Satya Nadella) when Qualcomm acted like a college whose offensive coordinator was flirting with a bigger school and agreed to let him replace Paul Jacobs, 51, son of co-founder Irwin Jacobs.

Paul Jacobs is staying on as executive chairman, and will reportedly "guide the development of new technology." Think of it as bumping the old coach up to athletic director. Jacobs was also one of three Qualcomm insiders to make a major sale of his company's stock last month, however, which may add to bearish pressure.

China, meanwhile, is upset over its continuing, and rising, trade deficit in semiconductors, partly caused by Qualcomm's intellectual property. It is using its antitrust law to go after both holders of global mobile standards: Qualcomm and InterDigital (IDCC).

The government is talking of imposing fines of up to $1 billion, but its aim seems to be to cut the 4% licensing fees network operators and phone makers routinely pay for technologies such as Qualcomm's LTE Advanced, which is now being rolled out nationwide at a cost of $120 billion.

China's antitrust moves would appear to benefit MediaTek, a Taiwanese company. MediaTek's MT6592 chip is getting strong reviews and costs just half what Qualcomm charges for its competing Snapdragon 800 chip.

If Qualcomm cuts a deal with China, it will be under pressure elsewhere, and from MediaTek. If it plays hardball it could still lose and find itself in a worse position.

Mollenkopf is not a China hand. He came up through engineering and product development, holding several patents and serving on the Semiconductor Industries Association board. 

Qualcomm bears are also questioning the company's decision to kill its Smart TV chip, the Snapdragon 802, which was just introduced at January's Consumer Electronics Show. With Apple (AAPL), a key customer, rumored to be readying a TV product for later this year, bears will ask whether the company is losing its touch.

But overall, this is still a growth stock. Although there are plenty of reasons to question Qualcomm's future performance, and its price sets a very high bar for that performance, great stocks are in the habit of climbing such walls of worry. Of the 44 analysts following the stock only one has put out the sell sign, with five reiterating their buy rating just last week. 

The buyers have been right for a long time.

At the time of publication the author owned shares of AAPL.

This article represents the opinion of a contributor and not necessarily that of TheStreet or its editorial staff.

 

More from Opinion

Red Hat CFO Tells TheStreet: Tech Trends Are Still in Our Favor

Red Hat CFO Tells TheStreet: Tech Trends Are Still in Our Favor

Throwback Thursday: Intel Edition

Throwback Thursday: Intel Edition

Intel's Next CEO Should Try Harder to Protect Its Flanks Against AMD and Others

Intel's Next CEO Should Try Harder to Protect Its Flanks Against AMD and Others

3 Warren Buffett Stock Picks That Could Be Perfect for Your Retirement Portfolio

3 Warren Buffett Stock Picks That Could Be Perfect for Your Retirement Portfolio

Wednesday Wrap-Up: GE and Facebook

Wednesday Wrap-Up: GE and Facebook