Intel (Nasdaq: INTC), the No. 1 chipmaker, is expected to report lower third-quarter earnings and revenue Tuesday after a quarter when sales of PCs barely budged.
So the real news may be what CEO Paul Otellini says about the fourth quarter and growth patterns for 2013. Considering the blizzard of new products scheduled for shipment this quarter, it ought to be optimistic.
The top U.S. PC makers, Hewlett-Packard Co. (NYSE: HPQ), No. 1 worldwide, and Dell (Nasdaq: DELL), the No. 3 PC maker, have plenty of new units ready for sales, especially loaded with Windows 8 from Microsoft (Nasdaq: MSFT), the world's biggest software company.
Intel shares Tuesday rose 3 percent to $22.38, up 65 cents, a small comfort to investors. Last Friday, they set still another 52-week low of $21.40. For the year, Intel shares have surrendered 8 percent.
Last week, though, Advanced Micro Devices (NYSE: AMD), the No. 2 microprocessor developer, warned its third-quarter results would miss estimates due to “weakness” in the PC sector. Shares of the Sunnyvale, Calif., chief rival to Intel set a 52-week low of $2.72 Tuesday. Its high was $8.35.
Analysts polled by Thomson Reuters expect Intel, of Santa Clara, Calif., to report net income fell nearly 26 percent to $2.56 billion, or 49.6 cents per share, from $3.46 billion, or 65 cents a year ago.
Intel’s third-quarter revenue is forecast to ease about 7 percent to $13.3 billion.
“The bar is low heading into the third-quarter earnings season,” said Mark Lipacis, semiconductor analyst for Jefferies. He expects Intel to forecast “mid-to-high single-digit” growth for the fourth quarter.
As well, the performance of chip stocks has been poor lately, perhaps overcorrecting for poor 2012 performance and perhaps understating a recovery for 2013.
But market researchers have estimated tepid growth in the PC sector this year, compared with surges for smartphones and tablets.
Last week, Intel customer Apple Inc. (Nasdaq: AAPL) was shown to have tweaked the new A6 processor inside its iPhone 5, rather than depend entirely on engineering from principal partner ARM Holdings (Nasdaq: ARMH) of the UK.
That could mean over time that Intel, whose chips are in Macs, might lose that market -- the only segment of PCs that has grown this year -- as preferences shift.
Last week, two brokerage firms lowered their price target for Intel for the next year. Barclays maintained a “neutral” rating but trimmed the price to $22 from $24, while MKM chopped its target $3 to $27.
Some analysts also worry that with lower sales, there’s less cash available for Intel CFO Stacy Smith to buy back shares and pay the quarterly dividend of 22.5 cents per share.
Romy Shah, analyst with Nomura Securities, who has a $22 target and a “reduce” rating on Intel, says the company used $14 billion to buy back shares last year. In 2011, the company had cash exceeding $11 billion but that fell to $9.6 billion in the second quarter.
Also, Intel used about $4 billion in July to acquire a 15 percent stake in ASML Holding (Nasdaq: ASML), the Dutch semiconductor equipment maker, among its top vendors. ASML also was planning to sell equity stakes to rivals Samsung Electronics (Seoul: 005930) and Taiwan Semconductor Manufacturing Co. (NYSE: TSM).
At Bernstein Research, analyst Stacy Rasgon lowered his rating on Intel to “underperform” from “market perform,” because he worries about the company’s ability to raise prices as it encounters more competition.
Rasgon suggested Intel’s average selling price will keep falling, from $94.17 per system this year to $88.84 next year and $85 in 2014, which would account for weakness in the shares.
To be sure, with a price-earnings ratio of only 9, a world-class reputation and the company whose founders, including Robert Noyce, invented the microprocessor, a low price might present an excellent buying opportunity. Or it could be the chance for an activist investor to step in to demand better performance.