Intel data center rebound eases U.S.-China trade war worries

(Reuters) - Intel Corp INTC.O on Thursday beat Wall Street estimates for third-quarter revenue and profit and raised its full-year revenue forecast, powered by sales to data centers and easing concerns about slowing demand during the U.S.-China trade war.

FILE PHOTO: The Intel logo is shown at E3, the world's largest video game industry convention in Los Angeles, California, U.S. June 12, 2018. REUTERS/Mike Blake

The chipmaker’s shares rose 3.5% to $54.08 in extended trading.

The results came as a relief to the industry after dour forecasts from major chipmakers Texas Instruments Inc TXN.O and Xilinx Inc XLNX.O earlier this week.

After years of acquisitions outside its core area of processing chips under previous leaders, Intel under Chief Executive Bob Swan has reined in spending, slowing investments in areas like memory chips and shedding struggling businesses.

Intel, based in Santa Clara, California, has doubled down on its core markets such as personal computers and data centers, both of which beat analysts’ third-quarter expectations.

Chief Financial Officer George Davis said Intel anticipated most of the year’s data center spending would come in the second half because many customers bought chips in 2018 and took time to install them.

“Data center came back much more strongly than even we anticipated this quarter,” Davis said in an interview. “Cloud customers actually grew year over year, and last year was an extraordinary year.”

Cascend Securities analyst Eric Ross said Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Co Ltd 2330.TW, which supplies some of Intel's rivals, had also forecast strong data center demand, suggesting a broader market recovery.

“We’ve finally seen another major semiconductor company that sees the data center returning as a major driver, as we’ve seen in our measurements, and the electronics supply chain sees,” he said.

Intel has also been contending with a U.S.-China trade war that led to tariffs on its chips. About $200 million of Intel’s third-quarter revenue came from Chinese data center owners purchasing chips sooner than they otherwise would have, likely out of trade concerns, Davis said.

But analyst Kinngai Chan of Summit Insights Group said he suspected much more of Intel’s results were driven by sped-up buying because of tariffs and that could slow sales during the fourth quarter of 2019 and first quarter of 2020.

“We think this could result in the supply chain inventory digestion” as Intel’s customers work through the chips they have bought, he said.

Intel, which is racing against rival Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Co to make smaller chips, said the move to the newer process, called 10-nanometer, was on track and it would have its next-generation, 7-nanometer, chips by 2021.

Swan also said Intel was “well down the engineering path” for even more advanced 5-nanometer chips.

Revenue in Intel’s client computing business, which caters to PC makers and is the biggest contributor to sales, fell 5% to $9.7 billion, but still beat FactSet estimates of $9.60 billion.

Davis said revenue could have been higher but Intel was unable to make enough chips for entry-level PCs.

“Demand has just outstripped our ability to add capacity,” Davis said. “In some ways it’s a good problem to have, but anytime you can’t satisfy your customers, that’s not a good outcome.”

Asked by an analyst on a conference call whether Intel would consider turning to an outside foundry to make central processing units, or CPUs, to alleviate shortages, Swan noted that Intel had used outside suppliers in the past and would evaluate the option.

“We’re investing to recapture process leadership going forward. At the same time, we’re going to be extremely open-minded about, ‘How do we ensure that we’re building the best products?’” Swan said. “Where we build them is something that we’ll always evaluate.”

Revenue from its higher-margin data center business rose 4% to $6.4 billion in the quarter, while analysts were expecting revenue of $5.62 billion, according to FactSet.

Intel forecast fourth-quarter revenue of $19.2 billion, and adjusted earnings of $1.24 per share.

Analysts on average were expecting revenue of $18.82 billion and a profit of $1.21 per share, according to IBES data from Refinitiv.

For the full year, the company expects revenue of $71 billion, up from its earlier forecast of $69.5 billion. That came in above analysts’ estimate of $69.43 billion.

Intel said net revenue was steady at $19.19 billion, beating estimates of $18.05 billion.

Excluding items, the company earned $1.42 per share, above estimates of $1.24 per share.

Reporting by Munsif Vengattil in Bengaluru and Stephen Nellis in San Francisco; Editing by Saumyadeb Chakrabarty, Shailesh Kuber and Richard Chang