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Is Q1 a cycle bottom? Time for 2009 reality check! Semicon update Apr’09

June 17, 2009

Here are the excerpts from the Global Semiconductor Monthly Report, April 2009, provided by Malcolm Penn, chairman, founder and CEO of Future Horizons. There are a lot of charts associated with this report. Those interested to know more about this report should contact Future Horizons.

This will be followed by updates for May and June, and I am speaking with Malcolm Penn to find out more!

Executive overview
“February’s IC sales were up 4.3 percent on January, down 26.5 percent on the same time last year. If March behaves true to historical norms, we can expect to see sales up 26 percent on February, at 14.3 billion (on a calendar month basis), equivalent to plus 0.8 percent, four-week month adjusted.

This would see Q1 sales down around 15 percent on Q4-2008, just slightly ahead of our 18 percent forecast decline. Whilst March’s data point is right now still an estimate, the year to date data and trends give strong guidance on what is actually happening. Time therefore to reflect on our 2009 chip market forecast and growth pattern outlook for the year as a whole.

At our January 2009 International Forecast Seminar in London, we forecast growth for the 2009 market at -28 percent. This was the most pessimistic of all the industry watchers!Source: Future Horizons

The forecast reflected the unprecedented Q4-2008 industry meltdown that started on Sept 16 with the Lehman Brothers collapse. December was an especially a traumatic month, with several firms reporting negative net monthly sales (i.e., cancellations were higher than new orders), with zero guidance visibility on the outlook for Q1-2009.

Our forecast estimated Q4 would decline a 22.5 percent versus Q3, followed by a similar (but slightly slowing) decline of 20 percent in Q1, bottoming out in Q2 (at -2 percent versus Q1) followed by reasonably strong seasonal recover in Q3 and Q4 of plus 12 percent and plus 3 percent respectively.

Once December’s results were published in February, we modified this profile slightly to reflect December’s actual 24.2 percent decline (versus our 22.5 percent estimate), reducing the first quarter decline slightly (from -20 percent to -18.5 percent) thereby maintaining the overall year-on-year 28 percent decline.

Ironically, despite having the most pessimistic overall year-on-year forecast, we were widely criticised at the time for predicting a ‘V-shaped’ recession. Yet, to achieve the more favoured ‘U-shaped’ recovery would have meant a very low single digit quarterly decline in Q1, something we did not believe was realistic or likely. Our most optimistic (rose coloured glasses) scenario pegged Q1 growth at -8 percent, yielding an 18.7 percent annual 2009 decline.

Despite December’s worse than forecast results, February’s data, both in its absolute value and underlying momentum, added credence to our ‘V-shaped’ scenario, despite the emergence of a new popularist theory of a W-shaped recovery.

As such, we are sticking to both the shape of the recovery — V, not U or W — and profile; there is even some indication that the recovery is happening slightly earlier than we estimated. Now that, if true, would soften the depth of the 2009 decline.

Based on January and February’s WSTS data, March now looks like coming in at $17.019 billion, which would see Q1 reach $43.642 billion, down 16.4 percent on Q4-2009, which is 2 percentage points lower than the 18.4 percent we were forecasting. If this is the case, Q1 will mark the recession cyclical bottom.

Industry capacity
The Q4-08 total MOS IC capacity was up just 3.1 percent versus Q4-07, which in turn was up 13.6 percent on Q4-2006. Quarter on quarter growth was -1.7 percent, compared with +1.1 percent for Q3-08, plus 2 for Q2-08 and +1.7 percent for Q1-08. This dramatic slowdown in net new capacity is in direct response to the slowdown in capex that has been gaining momentum since the second half of 2007.

It should be remembered that there is a ‘nine-month delay’ between a capex spend and saleable units out, so capex in year ‘n’ drives capacity expansion in year ‘n+1’. As such, the capex spend is now growing much slower than the underlying unit demand, and the impact is an eventual increase in the capacity utilisation rates.

Do not be misled by the sharp falloff in Q4-08 utilisation; this was the direct result of the September financial crisis near-term inventory purge driven demand slump and not representative of the underlying trends. We expect this to bounce back quite rapidly once orders readjust during the first half of 2009.

Although due to timing, inventory and seasonality issues, supply and demand will never identically track, utilisation rates have been straddling the 90 percent level since mid-2003. We expect this trend to resume by the end of this year.

With capex spend averaging around US$8 billion per quarter between Q3-06 and Q1-08 spending plunged dramatically in Q2-08 reaching under half this average in Q4-08. Given the current front-end capex book-to-bill trends, this spend will shrink still further at least through 1H-2009. Interestingly, this cutback happened well before the Q4 market meltdown, the impact of a premeditated strategy to dramatically tighten supply and thereby increase wafer and IC average selling prices.

The level of new front-end capital equipment orders has now been sizeably lower than sales for 31 consecutive months, the last four at unprecedentedly low levels, aside from two short-lived incursions into positive territory circa Q4-06 and Q4-08. The 2008 capex spend was down 30.6 percent on 2007’s level, with the outlook for 2009 looking to be at least a further 30 percent lower. That would put 2009’s capex spend at well under half 2000’s peak.

No amount of productivity gains can offset this slowed investment, especially now the one-off 300mm conversion gain has been absorbed. Net new capacity addition is thus condemned to shrink even further during 2009, the effect of which will be masked in the near-term by the current inventory /demand adjustment process.

With near-term demand having shrunk in Q4, this strategy has essentially been blocked but not reversed. Unlike 2001, when recession hit during a period of capex expansion, the bounce back from the current dip will be quite sharp and sudden. It is only a matter of time before capacity gets squeezed and wafer process rise. We expect this trend to bit hard in 2010, possibly even leading to shortages and allocations, just as the economic recovery starts to gain momentum.

The interim period of ‘plentiful capacity in 2009’, will feed the perceived wisdom of a sense of supply security, those with an inkling of a medium-term plan need to tie down their supply positions whilst the going is good. Today’s era of cheap and plentiful wafers, like the discredited ‘debt is cheap and free’ era, are number and counting down.

Just to make the point deeper we tracked the book-to-bill ratio against future capacity adjusted for the three quarter lead-time delay. It shows both a good trend correlation and the depth of the problem. Once again, it reinforces all of the other anecdotal and hard evidence that net new capacity growth is condemned to slow even further. When the unit demand recovers, the capacity simply will not be there, especially at the leading edge technologies.”

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