Arik Hesseldahl

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Intel Thrives in Tough Quarter, Expects Gains in Mobile Chips

Despite a significant supply chain disruption in the PC business, Intel has managed once again to surprise everyone with its luck in selling chips to PC and server vendors.

The company’s profit climbed by nearly 6 percent in the quarter, despite persistent worries that demand for personal computers is down generally in the face of worldwide economic uncertainty, the popularity of tablet devices like Apple’s iPad, and smartphones in which Intel’s chips are not a significant factor.

Yet, as has been the case for the last several quarters, Intel knows the demand for its global markets — specifically Brazil, Russia, India, and China — far better than any industry analyst, and its executives, especially CEO Paul Otellini, have seemed to enjoy bursting the bubbles of the IDCs and Gartners of the world, who continue to preach a catechism of PC doom.

It’s important for the wider tech industry, because if Intel is healthy, it says a lot about the health of the rest of tech. If PCs are selling well, that means consumers and companies are buying them, either to replace new machines or buying a PC for the first time. And if PCs are selling well, then servers are selling well. Behind all that talk about cloud computing and cloud services are physical servers sitting in a data center somewhere, usually containing Intel chips.

The earnings conference call is about to start, so we’ll get some better indications about how and why Intel managed to surprise the Street once again.

2:35 pm: Ah, joining the conference call in progress. CEO Paul Otellini is speaking and, naturally, he’s crowing about Intel landing a chip in a Lenovo smartphone announced at CES last week.

“In the first quarter, we completed the acquisitions of McAfee and Intel Mobile Communications, formerly of Infineon. They will allow us to extend our strategies across computing.”

He’s recounting highlights of the past fiscal year. During Q4, Intel acquired Telap, which specializes in location-based technologies.

Now he’s talking about a smartphone reference design, basically a board around which a phone maker can build and customize. In the reference design is an Intel Medfield chip. Also, a strategic relationship with Motorola Mobility. “While the Lenovo and Motorola designs are first steps, we’re not done making announcements in the space.”

Now he’s talking about more chips for 2012. For example, 70 Ultrabooks are coming to market this year.

2:39 pm: CFO Stacy Smith is speaking. Nice gross margins of 65.5 percent, which were in the high end of the range. That’s Intel’s speciality — efficiency.

Smith: We saw a reduction of orders for microprocessors as a result of the Thailand flooding. The flooding didn’t affect sales directly, he says.

Smith: Q1 revenue will be down a little more from the average seasonal decline, as the flooding will continue to affect sales.

Smith: 2012 growth of revenue in the high end of single digits. Capital spending of $12.5 billion, in order to build a fancy new fab.

Smith: We continue to see strong results in emerging markets, as increased incomes allow more people to afford PCs.

Time for Q&A with the analysts.

First question from Citi: He’s asking about gross-margin projections and revenues. What is the PC forecast assumption that underlies that?

Smith: It will play out similar to this year. There will be some unit growth, and we’ll benefit from a rich product mix. The high single-digit number in perspective. Strip out some things from 2011, we expect it to come down, in part because of lower GDP growth, but we see the same kind of trends in 2012 that we saw in 2011.

Citi analyst asks if the unit costs per chip are coming down.

Smith: That’s a normal phenomenon as we ramp factories to a new process, and then the cost comes down over the course of the year.

A question from Jefferies: As you get more success in the smartphone and tablet markets, I’m wondering if it’s your intention to get more chips up and down the stack, or is it different from PCs?

Otellini: Our intention is to participate broadly in all three of those markets. In tablets, we’ll be well-positioned for that. Who knows where the prices go over time, but we’d use the advanced silicon integration capabilities that we have to drive the costs down. We’re coming in at the top of the smartphone market; we’re aiming at best performance and very good battery life. And the Infineon acquisition has given us a very good position in basic phones. They shipped about 400 million modems.

Jefferies: Do they inherently carry more profitability than the PC processor business?

Otellini: The other guys have lower margins. But we’ll get paid twice. We’ll get paid as the foundry, but also for the architecture.

2:50 pm: Question from Bank of America: There were a lot of announcements on Ultrabooks from CES. Will they cannibalize notebook sales?

Otellini: I have not seen this level of excitement since before Centrino, which was in 2003. Initially, you will see this will be a replacement of existing notebook sales. People will trade up. As we move through 2012 and into 2013 as Windows 8 machines roll out, you have the possibility or even the probability of many of those machines incorporating touch. At that point, the machines incorporate the best of both the PC and the tablet. I don’t know how that plays out, but we’ll be well-positioned.

Question from JMP Securities: I know you don’t guide by segment, but what’s happening on the data center side of the business? And how does Romley change that? (Romley is a future server chip.)

Smith: Let me do a higher-level look. The data-center business can be pretty lumpy, but on a secular basis, we’re pretty confident in the growth trends.

Otellini: We’re seeing stronger growth for Romley than we saw for Nehalem at the same point in its lifespan, two years ago. Initially, it will not drive the same kind of replacement cycle that Nehalem did. It will drive replacement for high-capacity needs. I think this product is the most well-rounded in the genre so far.

Question from Deutsche Bank: Overall, as we look at flood impact, how should we see that snapping back, and against the backdrop of the seasonality?

Otellini: There are more moving pieces as I look out over the next 11 months. Our view is that the industry seems to be hitting the bottom of their output trough in Jan. and Feb. Everyone who seems to want to buy a PC has been able to. There are some stockouts in particular SKUs. You will see some compression of the supply chain. We think there is likely to be some refilling of the pipes in the second quarter, and into the third quarter. Or people will learn to live with leaner supply chains, which is always good for us.

3:00 pm: Question from Goldman Sachs: What’s the incremental growth in capacity? And what is the initial assumption on factory loadings?

Smith: Let’s talk about what’s driving the capital spending. $12.5 billion is a big number, but you have to take in the context of how our business has grown. Then it makes sense. I think my depreciation as a percent of revenue stays in a healthy range. In terms of the makeup of specific capital spending, it’s a two-year cycle as we’re building buildings. That part starts to come down in 2013. Buildings are depreciated over a longer period of time.

In terms of factory utilization, we’re running full-out today. We’re just in the beginning of the 22-nanometer cycle. We took advantage of the flooding by taking some older equipment offline sooner than we would have otherwise. We’re selling every 22-nanometer unit we can get out there.

3:06 pm: Totally missed the question from UBS. Sorry, UBS.

Question from Credit Suisse about Ultrabooks. Are there any sort of milestones you expect — perhaps, say, percentage of total notebooks?

Otellini: Starting with the mix. Core processors are about 70 percent of our mix, and that’s historically high for our premium brand. What we can’t yet predict is the mix between i3, i5 and i7. As we move toward the second half of the year, the mix comes down to i3. In terms of a target, our goal would be to exit the year with about 40 percent of consumer notebooks being Ultrabooks.

3:11 pm: J.P. Morgan asks if Intel is going to continue to spend like a drunken sailor on capital expenditures and R&D.

Smith says Intel is making some important investments this year, but they will come down from here.

A question from Nomura: Android tablet sales seemed like a disappointment in 2011. What was the issue, and is there a reason to be more optimistic this year?

Otellini: They were where I thought they would be, but I was below where others were. Until you get to Ice Cream Sandwich, you’re at a comparison with Apple’s iPad. The other part of that test is the Windows 8 tablets that are being queued up for production. I don’t think anything about the tablet market is settled yet. The jury is out on the long-term segmentation by form factor.

Ew. Questions from Barclays are being turned back. Smith just won’t go where he wants them to go. Too granular.

3:16 pm: Otellini: The data-center storage is not your grandmother’s data-center business of before. Back to lumpy data-center sales, when Facebook or Apple turns on a new data center. We’re seeing a change to the linearity to data-center sales. Expect more short-term lumpiness, but stick to the year-on-year growth.

One more question to go. And it’s from Caris & Co. He’s asking about capex again.

Smith: If you look at spending for capex in 2012, a historically large part of it is the four-factory model. From here, our capex will be a function of two things — the unit growth we see and the speed with which we bring our process technologies to the leading edge. We balance off those decisions as we go forward. With a big increase in units, we’ll spend the capex to support it.

Caris: You’ve taken on some debt in the quarter, as you look for flexibility to buy back more stock.

Smith: Our balance sheet supports taking on more debt, and we certainly have the capability of doing so. We’ve said in the past, our first priority is investing in the business. We bought McAfee and Infineon. We had a significant increase in dividends in 2011, and as a percent of free cash flow. We did take advantage of low interest rates and high-dividend yield to buy back a lot more stock.

And that is the end of the call. Good night!

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