The broad slowdown behind RF Micro's (RFMD) chilly forecast could leave a couple of wireless powerhouses shivering.
RF Micro, a manufacturer of power-boosting chips, told Wall Street late Monday that order delays at the end of last month would punish profits while leaving sales mostly untouched. The result will be a 10 percentage-point contraction in gross margins and a bigger-than-expected loss.
RF Micro pointed to weakening sales to time division multiple access, or TDMA, and code division multiple access, or CDMA, customers. Analysts and investors quickly drew bearish conclusions about the near-term outlook for handset maker
and CDMA chipmaker
-- king of a third way, the so-called global systems for mobile communications, or GSM, standard that dominates in Europe -- emerged as the perceived winner. It is widely believed that, as RF Micro's largest customer, Nokia probably had a major role in the chipmaker's margin problems. In other words, investors saw sufficient evidence that Nokia's dominance of the world's handset market continues.
"CDMA was the surprise," says Bear Stearns analyst Wojtek Uzdelewicz, who points to an array of factors now dragging on the fast-growing wireless technology standard.
On Tuesday afternoon, RF Micro dropped 57 cents, or 9%, to $5.48. Qualcomm shares fell $1.31, or 4%, to $32.88, and Motorola dropped a quarter, or 3%, to $8.27. Nokia slid 6 cents to $15.05.
One of the broader takeaways from the RF Micro news is that Qualcomm's global CDMA expansion may not be as immediate as expected.
Among the woes for CDMA that Uzdelewicz highlights are: a potential drop in handset subsidies by Korean phone companies, slower-than-expected subscriber growth in China, and the delayed launch of India's CDMA network. (Uzdelewicz has a neutral rating on Qualcomm and Motorola and a buy on Nokia. Bear Stearns has done no underwriting for these companies in the past year.)
As RF Micro's largest CDMA customer -- accounting for some 80% of the company's CDMA sales -- Motorola struck many industry observers as the likely source for most of the CDMA weakness. Given widespread price pressure and the popularity of new camera phones from
, industry observers say Motorola may be missing out on a fair share of the current handset upgrade cycle.
"There was a lot of hype around the ramp-up of business in China and India. The estimates were far too bullish," says a Wall Street hedge fund manager who is short Qualcomm and Motorola and long Nokia. "CDMA has had the biggest growth in the industry, but that caused a number of vendors to jump in and overproduce, flooding the market with their products."