One doesn't need to be Ben Bernanke to know the U.S. economy is easing. Just look at the technology industry -- chips, PCs, networking equipment, consumer electronics and production equipment -- and you see signs that the pace is slowing down.
Just about the only sector predicted to skyrocket this quarter and next is smartphones and tablets -- or basically, Apple iPhones and iPads. Market researchers IHS estimates smartphone sales will soar 64 percent to 478 million units, while tablet sales triple to 60 million.
That's good news for Google and Android makers and just about anyone else with a cool rival to the iPad, but it's bad for Silicon Valley and investors. The only reason the latter buy tech stocks is for their total return. It's also why companies like Zynga have already filed IPOs.
Meanwhile, here are some of the weathervanes portending a rough patch:
Chip orders and demand are easing. No chips, no computers or mobile phones or appliances. The Semiconductor Industry Association earlier reported June sales slipped $300 million below May's $25 billion and said first-half sales rose only 3.7 percent. Full-year growth was trimmed to 5.4 percent vs. last year's 32 percent jump.
Apple last year became the world's biggest chip buyer.
But some vendors are already hurting. Freescale Semiconductor, once part of Motorola, said third-quarter orders for automotive chips had eased. Because each car now has 10 times as many chips as before, the manufacturers had expected last year's $19.3 billion market to expand this year.
Automotive production has been slowed in the quarter and we think in the third quarter we'll see a slight reduction again, Freescale CEO Rich Beyer told Reuters. The bad sign: Freescale is the biggest chip supplier to Detroit.
Network equipment orders are tapering off: Earnings reports throughout the network products sector are also ominous. Market leader Cisco Systems reported solid earnings, but CEO John Chambers acknowledged orders from the public sector have gone away. So have smaller rivals like Ciena and Juniper Networks.
Juniper CEO Kevin Johnson said most years, the company derives about 45 percent of orders in the first half and 55 percent in the second. But this year, it's more like 50-50, so that's prompted us to be more cautious.
Juniper shares have lost 33 percent over the last month, compared with only 5.5 percent for Cisco, which in 2000 was the world's most valuable company.
PC orders are slowing: Both HP and Dell, No. 1 and 2 in the sector, reported slower-than-expected growth. HP decided to exit the sector. In Taiwan; Acer, No. 4, reported a $236 million loss as second-quarter sales plunged 32 percent to $3.5 billion.
Only China's Lenovo Group, No. 3, reported solid net income and growth, mainly because of higher demand from China and developing countries.
Aside from the Apple phenomenon, the PC makers usually expect solid gains in the second half from the consumer, education and corporate sectors. It's when they make all their money for the year. Dell, like major retailers, actually closes its books at the end of January.
Tech equipment orders are falling. If chip demand is easing, why buy new equipment? That's the dilemma faced by Applied Materials, the No. 1 supplier of chipmaking machinery to Intel, Texas Instruments, Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing and others.
Why buy a new line for $250 million and more if there's a sign of recession? On Wednesday, Applied Materials CEO Michael Splinter described consumer electronics orders as disappointing and lopped $1 billion off an earlier order estimate for wafer fab spending by customers for the year. Consumers bought fewer TVs and PCs.
As a result, Applied Materials have lost 4 percent since. The insurance policy Applied Materials has, along with rivals like Novellus Systems and Lam Research, is that chipmakers continue to build new, smaller and more powerful chips on bigger surfaces. Intel has just announced its iBook initiative.Even in the worst recession, chip customers order new equipment.
Consumers may ease off holiday electronics sales. Splinter, the Applied Materials CEO, already said orders for new TV displays aren't great. The biggest retailers like Wal-Mart stores have reported easing sales.
The Consumer Electronics Association Index of Consumer Technology Spending rose 4 percent this month and is about 4.6 percent above last August. But consumer confidence in the overall economy dropped slightly to 158.8, the lowest level in a year.
The CEA's economist, Shawn DuBravac said he believes consumers continue to show interest in spending on technology but the $190 billion U.S. consumer electronics industry could be subject to a lousy year.