Wall St. havoc deals blow to mobile phone makers

HELSINKI Thu Sep 18, 2008 9:27am EDT

A broker trades equities at BGC Partners in London September 15, 2008. REUTERS/Suzanne Plunkett

A broker trades equities at BGC Partners in London September 15, 2008.

Credit: Reuters/Suzanne Plunkett

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HELSINKI (Reuters) - Mobile phone makers and operators risk losing thousands of their most profitable customers as financial havoc whacks the global banking industry.

Analysts said the success of Blackberry-maker RIM RIM.TO RIMM.O is the most dependent on Wall Street's future.

In worst case scenario 40,000 workers may lose their jobs in finance following Lehman's LEH.N collapse and problems at other big financial firms, New York Governor David Paterson said earlier this week.

"RIM probably looks most exposed to any downside risk in this segment," said analyst Neil Mawston from research firm Strategy Analytics, adding that also Palm PALM.O, HTC (2498.TW) and HP (HPQ.N) could feel the pinch.

Handset makers already face an increasingly fierce battle for market share as demand slows in the United States and Europe, where economies are under pressure from the global credit crunch.

Operators have started to answer the growing problem by shifting their subsidy dollars to more expensive phone models -- hoping to attract clients who spend more money by surfing on the Internet and checking their e-mail.

"In North America they have been targeting especially higher-data devices," said Carolina Milanesi, analyst at research firm Gartner.

The global mobile phone market is expected to grow around 10 percent this year, boosted by the continuing surge in demand for cheap phones in emerging markets like India.

At the same time, mature handset markets in the developed world have grown marginally at best. In Western Europe handset sales fell sharply in the first half of 2008, Gartner says.

Operator subsidies -- key for phone sales in most mature markets -- in Western Europe show a moderate decline, while subsidies in North America are slowly rising, Credit Suisse said in a research note.

"However a substantial reallocation is underway in that 45 percent of subsidies in these markets now go towards smartphones, some 20 percentage-points higher than 18 months ago -- a trend which we believe will continue," Credit Suisse said, adding this was likely to hurt sales volumes of cheaper phones.

RIM, which sold 5.6 million Blackberries last quarter, has been able to successfully expand its customer base beyond Wall Street bankers in the last few years, but 40 percent of its new subscribers were still from large corporations in the last fiscal quarter.

"No matter how much economic challenge there is, how many people do you know that have given up their mobile?" RIM's co-chief executive Jim Balsille said on Thursday in Mumbai at the launch of the BlackBerry Bold smartphone in India.

"But there's clearly got to be a point where there is an impact. Macroeconomic factors have gotten all the more turbulent in the last week, and maybe it will come to that tipping point," he said, declining to say if the company stood by its guidance for the second quarter and for the rest of the year.

Among the large mobile phone makers Nokia (NOK1V.HE) has been pushing for bigger share of the mobile e-mail market for years, but sold just 2 million E-series business phones in the second quarter, less than 2 percent of its total volumes.

"Nokia's E-series handsets have been struggling to gain traction over the past year, so the current financial-industry wobbles may not help them," said Strategy Analytics' Mawston.

(Additional reporting by Rina Chandran; Editing by Louise Ireland)

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