Micron Technology (MU.O) posted quarterly results below expectations and said weak prices for DRAM memory chips are making industry consolidation inevitable.
The top U.S. memory manufacturer's poor showing lent weight to recent warnings from both Intel (INTC.O) and Texas Instruments TXN.N about weak chip market conditions, and came after Oracle's first earnings miss in a decade stoked fears that corporate America may be pulling back on tech spending.
Given that the reports from Micron and Oracle were for the quarter that ended in November, they may signal what to expect when more technology companies report after their quarters end in December.
Growth in sales of PCs, which use DRAM chips made by Micron, has slowed in recent quarters as European and U.S. consumers worried about a tough economy hold off on large purchases. Many consumers are also choosing tablets like Apple's (AAPL.O) iPad instead of laptops.
That has helped drive prices for DRAM lower throughout 2011 although some analysts speculate prices are stabilizing.
"These price levels are below costs and some of the weaker players are cutting capacity," said Kevin Cassidy, an analyst at Stifel Nicolaus.
Chief Executive Steve Appleton told analysts on a conference call that a slowdown in PC production caused by a shortage of hard drives has led a temporary drop in DRAM demand of 10 percent to 15 percent.
But the shortage has helped Micron's NAND business, executives on the call said, as PC manufacturers substitute solid state drives for scarce hard drives.
Solid-state drives, which are made with NAND chips, are faster than traditional hard drives but are much more expensive and are typically used in high-end laptops like Apple's MacBook Air.
Lower-than-cost prices in the DRAM market over the past year have sapped chipmakers' cash, and many investors expect smaller players to be acquired by market leaders Micron, Hynix Semiconductor Inc (000660.KS), Elpida 6665.T or Samsung Electronics Co (005930.KS) - or to drop out of the industry.
"A number of those companies continue to weaken and as they do ... they're going to figure out what they're going to do, so I think that will drive some further consolidation, I think that's inevitable," Appleton said.
He wouldn't comment specifically on Boise, Idaho-based Micron's M&A strategy.
Micron said revenue from DRAM chips was flat in the first quarter compared to the previous quarter as volumes increased and prices fell.
Revenue from Micron's NAND chips rose 6 percent, with higher volume thanks to growing sales of tablets and smartphones more than making up for lower prices.
Micron said revenue in its fiscal first quarter, ended December 1, was $2.09 billion, compared with $2.25 billion in the year-ago quarter. Analysts on average expected $2.13 billion, according to Thomson Reuters I/B/E/S.
Micron reported a net loss of $187 million, or 19 cents per share, in the quarter versus net income of $155 million, or 15 cents per share, in the same quarter last year. Analysts on average expected a loss of about 8 cents.
Shares of Micron fell 1.3 percent in extended trade after closing 4.3 percent lower at $5.54.
(Reporting by Noel Randewich; Editing by Gary Hill, Steve Orlofsky and Gunna Dickson)