Arik Hesseldahl

Recent Posts by Arik Hesseldahl

The World Is Overflowing With Memory Chips

If you haven’t had your fill of gloomy indicators for the state of the tech ecosystem in the new year, here’s another: DRAM chips are oversupplied.

This is, of course, bad news if you’re in the business of making the commodity Dynamic Random Access Memory chips that go into PCs, servers and smartphones. A state of oversupply coupled with weak demand means the chips command lower prices than they otherwise would. The situation can be good, however, if you’re buying computers, because memory upgrades get cheaper.

The problem, as related by the research firm IHS iSuppli, is a rise in inventories of chips that its analyst Mike Howard describes as “alarming.”

ISuppli measures how much unsold inventory the chipmakers themselves have in their warehouses — which include Micron Technology in the U.S., Elpida in Japan, and the South Korean pair of Samsung and Hynix. The higher the number is, the more intense the downward price pressure becomes.

The stockpile of DRAM chips as of the end of the third quarter of 2011 stood at 12.8 weeks, which is nearly a third higher than it had been three months earlier and double what it was in early 2010. It’s also a lot higher than the typical average of 9.2 weeks.

There are a lot of factors creating the glut. Tablets like the iPad and Kindle Fire are eating into notebook sales, and don’t require nearly as much DRAM as notebooks do. And new operating systems don’t require the incremental boost in onboard memory as had been typical.

Nor is the economic uncertainty caused by the sovereign debt crisis in Europe helping. Flooding in Thailand has also disrupted the supply of hard drives which has in turn affected the overall demand for PCs and servers. Computer makers who can’t get hard drives simply won’t build as many computers, and thus won’t be buying the DRAM they otherwise would be.

Something similar happened in 2008 when the global recession sapped computer demand and caused a pileup of DRAM chips that lasted nine quarters. This cycle could turn out to be worse, iSuppli says.

Overall, iSuppli reckons the market for DRAM chips was worth about $6 billion in the fourth quarter of 2011, down by 11 percent from the prior quarter, and it’s only heading further south. The worst, Howard says, is apparently yet to come.

If the economy turns upward, or even is perceived to be on the mend, the glut can work its way down pretty quickly. In 2009 the stockpile dropped by more than half over three quarters.

And if it seems obvious that these chip companies should just stop making DRAM and let demand catch up with supply, it’s actually not that easy. Chip factories, or fabs, contain billions of dollars worth of manufacturing equipment running processes that are difficult to stop and start. Also, it’s more expensive to have them sitting there doing nothing but depreciating than turning out a product that brings in revenue, even if it’s running at break-even or a slight loss.

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