Survey: Slower growth, volatile profits for chip makers

Emerging markets and higher R&D costs will affect chip makers worldwide

An increased number of semiconductor vendors expect their revenue growth to slow, which could play a role in making profitability highly volatile in the chip industry over the next five years, according to a study released today by KPMG.

KPMG surveyed 94 executives from companies among the top 100 chip makers worldwide, with help from the Semiconductor Industry Association. The firm concluded that declining chip prices, competition from companies in emerging markets and rising research and development costs will sap the coffers of many chip makers in the years ahead.

"This is a warning of an overall slowdown in the semiconductor industry," global chairman of KPMG's information, communications and entertainment practice, Gary Matuszak, said in an interview. He added that the slowdown is being driven by a decrease in the price of chips across the board. "It's beyond any [price war] between Intel and AMD," Matuszak said. "There is a dramatic decrease in prices."

According to KPMG, all but one of the executives who were surveyed said that they expect their companies to increase revenue during the next fiscal year. But the percentage of the respondents who expect year-over-year growth of more than 10 per cent was smaller than it was in a similar survey last year, KPMG said.

The study showed that when it comes to profitability, the outlook is even less robust. When asked to project financial results over the next five years, 33 per cent of the surveyed executives said their profits will be flat; 15 per cent said they will decline; and 26 per cent said profit levels will be volatile and unpredictable. The remaining respondents said they think profits will rise at their companies.

"Executives are much less optimistic than they were a year ago," Matuszak said. "Corporate spending is going to be down, with the demand for new products coming from the consumer sector, which generally has a lower price point."

Matuszak added that most chip makers won't scrimp when it comes to research and development, which will further drain money from the profit pot. "I think R&D spending will most likely still go up," he said. "Companies realize they have to innovate to be successful."

Seventy-five per cent of the executives surveyed by KPMG said they expect R&D spending to increase in the next fiscal year. However, that number is down from the 85 per cent who responded similarly to the same question in last year's survey, Matuszak noted.

On Tuesday, Toshiba announced plans to expand its ongoing collaboration with an IBM-led research group that is working to develop 32-nanometre chip manufacturing technology.

An analyst at Gabriel Consulting Group, Dan Olds, said after Toshiba's announcement that semiconductor companies are banding together to share weighty R&D costs. "It costs a lot of dough to be on the cutting edge, and it's risky," he said. "You can screw up your fast chips in a whole bunch of ways, and it can be hugely expensive to fix them -- not to mention the time lost."

Olds suggested that the best approach for chip makers might be to "gang up with other bright guys and get the technology right together."

In fact, KPMG predicted that the likelihood of slower growth and uncertain profits will spark a new wave of mergers in the chip industry.

"Companies will try to buy new products and innovations, rather than getting them through R&D," Matuszak said. "We'll see further consolidation, and more companies outsourcing their manufacturing so they can focus on innovation."

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