Is it time to buy memory chip makers?

SEOUL Tue Dec 9, 2008 9:30am EST

An employee of a computer shop poses with a SanDisk compact flash memory card inside a computer mall in Taipei September 17, 2008. REUTERS/Nicky Loh

An employee of a computer shop poses with a SanDisk compact flash memory card inside a computer mall in Taipei September 17, 2008.

Credit: Reuters/Nicky Loh

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SEOUL (Reuters) - Shares in memory chip makers have crashed as the industry suffers a prolonged downturn on rapidly declining electronics demand, with some makers seeking bailouts to stay afloat.

Asset manager AllianceBernstein (AB.N) said on Tuesday it sold off a 5 percent stake in Hynix Semiconductor Inc (000660.KS) held on behalf of its clients. Hynix shares are down more than 70 percent this year.

But some analysts feel the cycle is near a bottom and the time may be approaching to pick up top names such as Samsung Electronics Co Ltd (005930.KS) and Hynix.

DIFFICULT YEAR AHEAD

"The bottom is yet to come," said Jae H. Lee, an analyst at Daiwa Securities. "Oversupply is a given fact until next year and chip companies will have to cut down capacity."

Lee said demand had weakened sharply since mid-November and makers were piling up inventory because chip prices were below production costs.

As memory chip firms are set to incur more losses in the coming quarters, other analysts also called for caution.

"We currently see no reason to be invested in the memory sector," said Robert Lea, an analyst with UBS. "We believe the industry recovery has been pushed out to 2010."

Hynix, which is seeking up to 1 trillion won ($693 million) in fresh funding from its shareholders, could see a dilution in value should stockholders agree to a new share issue.

SIGNS OF A BOTTOM

Recent news has only added to the grim outlook, from growing expectations that top player Samsung could post losses from chips to cost-cutting measures at Japan's Toshiba Corp (6502.T) and Hynix.

However, these moves could signal the industry is at a bottom, said Jay Kim, an analyst at Hyundai Securities.

"Year-end electronics sales data could provide a good indication for investors who are weighing on when to buy," said Kim, who keeps buy ratings on Samsung and Hynix.

A fifth of investors he talked to in a recent investor meeting "think now is the time to buy as shares have fallen to a bottom due to mounting fears," Kim said.

Samsung, the world leader in dynamic random access memory (DRAM) and NAND flash memory, is set to outperform peers thanks to its strong balance sheet and as the company is set to gain market share from struggling rivals, according to UBS's Lea.

UBS has neutral rating on Samsung with a price target of 470,000 won, steady with Tuesday's closing price of 469,500 won. It rates Hynix at sell, with target of 6,200 won versus Tuesday's close at 7,390 won.

Based on 2009 estimates, Daiwa has a price-to-book ratio of 1.3 for Samsung and 1.0 for Hynix. Hyundai Securities' Kim applies about 30 percent discount to Hynix price target versus Samsung, at price-to-book ratio of 0.7 to 0.8.

CONSOLIDATION COULD BE CATALYST

A breakthrough for memory chip shares could come from smaller firms in Taiwan and Germany, which are pinning their hopes on government support for survival.

"If year-end and new year sales data really disappoint, the Taiwanese government could make up its mind and push for the chip industry's consolidation," said Hyundai's Kim.

Troubled makers can get debt rollovers but won't be able to secure enough funds to invest in new technologies, which will force them to look for consolidation with rivals, Lee at Daiwa said.

"There is scope for a big (merger) deal in Taiwan," Lee said, adding such developments could provide a key catalyst for leading makers' share prices.

To see a graph on leading memory chip makers' share performance, click on: here

($1=1443.9 Won)

(Reporting by Rhee So-eui; Graphic by Catherine Trevethan; Editing by Jonathan Hopfner and Lincoln Feast)

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