ASML's Results Are Great News for Chip Equipment Makers, but Maybe Not for Memory Makers

ASML Holding NV's (ASML)  strong second-quarter results and solid third-quarter guidance certainly won't do anything to make chip equipment investors who have recorded big 2017 paper profits fear that the good times are ending. Investments among chipmakers in both incremental capacity upgrades and long-term projects still look very strong.

However, for investors in memory makers such as Micron Technology Ltd.  (MU) and Western Digital Corp. (WDC) , the read-through seems more mixed. Though hardly signaling that the memory industry's boom cycle is about to end, ASML's numbers perhaps suggest that investors should keep a close eye on the impact of new investments on industry pricing.

ASML, by far the biggest maker of photolithography equipment used in chip manufacturing, reported Q2 revenue of €2.1 billion (up 21% annually, equal to $2.42 billion) and EPS of €1.08 ($1.24), beating consensus analyst estimates of €1.99 billion and €0.96. Q3 revenue is guidance is at €2.2 billion, above a €2.16 billion consensus. The company added it's on track to post 25% sales growth in 2017, and that positive business trends "are likely to continue as we enter 2018."

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ASML shares finished up 7.3% to $150.63 on Wednesday, making new highs along the way. Chip equipment peers such as Applied Materials Inc. (AMAT) , Lam Research Corp. (LRCX) , and KLA-Tencor Corp. (KLAC) are trading higher on a good day for tech stocks.

ASML's closely-watched net order bookings grew 26% sequentially and 52% annually to €2.37 billion, easily beating a €1.78 billion consensus. That helped the company's order backlog rise 19% sequentially to €5.35 billion.

Growing demand for cutting-edge EUV lithography systems meant for future chip manufacturing processes contributed to the order growth. 8 EUV system orders were recorded in Q2, leading ASML's EUV system backlog to grow by 6 sequentially to 27, and its EUV revenue backlog by €500 million to €2.8 billion. Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Corp.  (TSM) has said it will use EUV for its second-gen 7-nanometer process, which is due in late 2018, and Globalfoundries plans to use EUV for a 7-nanometer process due in 2019.

Notably, ASML is also benefiting from strong orders from memory makers, as DRAM makers respond to supply shortages and soaring prices by adding capacity, and NAND flash memory makers continue ramping production of cheap 3D NAND flash chips. ASML expects its 2017 sales to memory clients to "grow about 50 percent from last year especially driven by DRAM." 54% of Q2 sales involved memory applications, up from 47% in Q1 and 35% a year ago.

On the earnings call, CEO Peter Wennink tried to calm worries that excess capacity is being built. Among other things, he pointed out that the current surge in memory spending follows significant 2016 underinvestment, and that strong data center-related demand has contributed to rising DRAM prices.

But it's worth keeping in mind that we're just 3 weeks removed from Micron signaling that DRAM pricing gains are likely to slow. And only a week removed from IDC and Gartner releasing Q2 PC sales figures that suggest rising memory prices have begun impacting PC demand. Meanwhile, Micron, Samsung and others are eager to ramp production of high-density 64-layer 3D NAND chips, and as Wennink noted, a number of new 3D NAND plants are seeing production come online.

In the near-term, the memory industry's supply/demand balance should still be healthy. We're entering the industry's seasonally strongest part of the year, and both Intel's recent Xeon Scalable server CPU launch and a major iPhone 8 production ramp should act as tailwinds over the next few months.

But considering how often memory stock investors have been caught off guard in the past by sudden industry downturns, recent data points suggesting that manufacturing investments are growing and price increases are slowing, and that some customers are changing their buying habits, shouldn't be ignored. They don't mean the good times are over, but do arguably indicate that the memory industry dynamics are more complex than they were a few months ago.

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