Halloween came early this year for tech stocks. Although markets rebounded modestly on Friday, techs suffered their worst single-day declines in seven years on Wednesday, and then the bloodbath continued on Thursday.
Onlookers pinned the rout on a toxic brew of rising interest rates, trade conflicts and plain old jitters after what's arguably been the longest bull market in history. And now, everyone's hunting for signals on what comes next.
But the best place to scope out the tech sector's future might not be the market-leading FAANGs, which collectively shed billions in market value as the Nasdaq plunged into correction territory on Thursday. Instead, anyone wondering what's in store for the tech sector might look past the idiosyncrasies of Facebook (FB) , Apple (AAPL) or Amazon (AMZN) and into the guts of the products they sell.
Consider memory giant Micron (MU) , which played up the positives at the inaugural company-sponsored Insight conference in San Francisco this week. MU executives announced a $100 billion venture fund focused on AI and made the case that an explosion in demand for memory and storage products are the wind in Micron's sails. But bearish sentiment, driven in part by the Trump administration's trade war with China and tariffs that went into effect on Sept. 24, have weighed on Micron's stock.
In a note on Wednesday, B. Riley FBR's Craig Ellis identified the trade conflict -- which is manifested now in 10% tariffs on $200 billion worth of Chinese goods but likely to escalate further -- as a primary risk factor for semiconductor stocks.
"It's a very significant factor, because it creates so much uncertainty in the technology supply chain around what the potential impact is to demand," Ellis told TheStreet. "The tariffs, and subsequent cost increases around products and components manufactured in China, mean that it's very hard for companies, and their investors, to get a good read on demand for those goods over the next few quarters, in addition to any pressures associated with shuffling production to absorb the tariffs. Micron, for instance, warned investors on its September earnings call that the tariffs could pinch profit margins for several quarters to come."
"We really do have an environment right now where there's a lot of crosscurrents," Ellis added.
Any tech firm caught up in the trade war is presumably dealing with it in their own way: Apple CEO Tim Cook, for example, launched a charm offensive in China as the company fights off claims that Chinese 'spy chips' found their way into Apple and Amazon data centers. Meanwhile, everyone from electronics sellers to e-bike startups are hustling to explain the impact of the tariffs to investors and customers: "It's been startling and confusing," said Mike Radenbaugh of Rad Power Bikes, which raised its prices after three rounds of tariffs squeezed margins on the electric bikes and parts it sells.
For semiconductor companies, mitigating the negative impact of a trade war will take even more more heavy lifting.
"What's happening now, as we speak, is that companies are evaluating and putting plans [in place] to mitigate the risks, or are already starting to move some of their operations and supply chain elsewhere," said Mike Russo of Semi, a global industry association that covers the manufacturing supply chain for electronics. The September tariffs included more than 90 lines central to the semiconductor industry, and the group estimates that they will cost its 400 U.S. members more than $700 million just in additional duties. The tariffs are expected to rise to 25% as of January 1, 2019.
For investors, the trade conflict is a moving target that makes it very difficult to predict how well specific companies can navigate the risks, Ellis added. Alongside the broader market sell-off this week, the SOX index fell more than 3% since Wednesday and many semiconductor stocks hit 52-week lows amid the pullback.
"What I feel comfortable saying is: If the tariffs broaden, and if rates increase as has been discussed, then it would be hard for any of my companies to be immune," Ellis said. "What you would likely get it a monolithic response -- it's unlikely that there would be a wide divergence between some chip companies who were winners and losers."
Although trade tensions might disproportionately burden industries with complex supply chain entanglements in China, such as the semiconductor sector, the ripple effects could spread well beyond chipmakers.
"The industry has a history of being a bit of a canary in the coal mine," Ellis added.
On how well chipmakers will take the pressure -- and what it means for tech overall-- the jury's still out.
(This item has been updated.)
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