EL SEGUNDO, USA: Concerned about their image as they face the specter of bankruptcy, many memory chip suppliers are attempting to paint a more optimistic picture of the business by talking up a potential market recovery.
However, while overall memory chip prices are expected to stabilize during the remaining quarters of 2009, iSuppli Corp. believes a true recovery in demand and profitability is not imminent.
After a 14.3 percent sequential decline in global revenue in the first quarter DRAM and NAND flash, the market for these products will grow throughout the rest of the year. Combined DRAM and NAND revenue will rise by 3.6 percent in the second quarter, and surge by 21.9 percent and 17.5 percent in the third and fourth quarters respectively.
“While this growth may spur some optimism among memory suppliers, the oversupply situation will continue to be acute,” said Nam Hyung Kim, director and chief analyst for memory ICs and storage at iSuppli.
“For example shipments of DRAM in the equivalent of the 1Gbit density will exceeded demand by an average of 14 percent during the first three quarters of 2009. This will prevent a strong price recovery, which will be required to achieve profitability for most memory suppliers.”
Due to a long-lasting glut of DRAM, the imbalance between supply and demand is too great for this market to recover to profitability any time soon.
“Even if all of the Taiwanese DRAM suppliers idled all their fabs, which equates to 25 percent of global DRAM megabit production, the market would remain in a state of oversupply,” Kim said. “This illustrates that the current oversupply is much more severe than many suppliers believe—or hope.”
Besides cutting capacity, which suppliers have already been doing, they presently have few options other than waiting for a fundamental demand recovery. iSuppli believes that another round of production cuts will take place in the second quarter, which will positively impact suppliers’ balance sheets late this year or early in 2010 at the earliest.
DRAM prices now amount to only one-third-level of Taiwanese suppliers’ cash costs. Unless prices increase by more than 200 percent, cash losses will persist for these Taiwanese suppliers.
While average megabit pricing for DRAM will rise during every quarter of 2009, it will not be even remotely enough to allow suppliers to generate profits in this industry. The industry needs a dramatic price recovery of a few hundred percentage points to make any kind of impact.
iSuppli is maintaining its “negative” rating of near-term market conditions for DRAM suppliers.
Confusing picture in NAND
The picture is a little more complicated in the NAND flash memory market.
Pricing for NAND since January has been better than iSuppli had expected. However, iSuppli believes this doesn’t signal a real market recovery.
Most NAND flash makers are continuing to lose money. The leading supplier, Samsung Electronics Co. Ltd., seems to be enjoying the current NAND price rally as prices have almost reached the company’s break-even costs. However, all the other NAND suppliers still are losing money.
“While the NAND market in the past has been able to achieve strong growth and solid pricing solely based on orders from Apple Computer Inc. for its popular iPod and iPhone products, this situation is not likely to recur in the future,” Kim said. “Even if Apple’s order surge, and it books most of Samsung’s capacity, it would require a commensurate increase in demand to other suppliers to generate a fundamental recovery in demand.”
However, iSuppli has not detected any substantial increase in orders from Apple to other suppliers. Furthermore, Apple’s orders, according to press reports, are not sufficient to positively impact the market as a whole.
It doesn’t make sense for major NAND suppliers Toshiba Corp. and Hynix Semiconductor Inc. to further decrease their production if there is a real fundamental market recovery. This means supply will continue to exceed demand and pricing will not rise enough to allow the NAND market as a whole to achieve profitability.
The NAND flash market is in a better situation than DRAM at least. However, the market remains challenging because fundamental demand conditions in the consumer electronics market have not improved due to the global recession.
One of the reasons why the price rally occurred is that inventory levels have been reduced in the channel and re-stocking activity has been progressing. Overall, memory suppliers will begin to announce their earnings shortly and iSuppli will remain cautious about the NAND flash market until we detect solid evidence, not just speculation, of a recovery.
iSuppli is remaining cautious about the near term rating of NAND market, holding its negative view for now, before considering upgrading it to neutral.
“Production cuts undoubtedly will have a positive impact on the market in the future. However, it’s too early for to celebrate. iSuppli believes the surge in optimism is premature. Supplier must be rational and watch the current market conditions carefully to avoid jumping to conclusions too quickly,” Kim concluded.