Marvell Technology Elbows Out

May 22, 2012

Marvell Technology Group (MRVL) reported results above expectations for the quarter ending April 28 (Q1 fiscal 2013) last Thursday. I was delighted that CEO Sehat Sutardja strayed from his usual dry, careful observations to take on some negative Street views of his company.

Revenue was $795.4 million, up 7% sequentially from $742.7 million, but down 1% from $802.4 million year-earlier. That may not seem stellar, but some rival semiconductor companies and some analysts had been predicting considerably worse. Essentially the rumors were that a competitor was finally besting Marvell in the hard drive controller market and that Marvell was also failing in the Chinese smartphone market.

Marvell stock ended Thursday, before results were released, at $13.3. Today it closed at $12.99, for a market capitalization of $7.4 billion. Clearly the news that Marvell is back on the success track has not yet sunk in, with overall market turmoil probably not helping.

For investors the last few year with Marvell have been tough. After splitting in 2004 and again in 2006, the stock price entered 2007 at well over $20 per share. At the 2008 bottom it hit a low around $4.48. More recently Marvell's 52-week high was $16.86, low was $11.23.

The real long-term value in any technology company is as much in what is going on in its R&D department today as what last-quarter's results were. R&D spend in the latest quarter was a healthy $256 million. Marvell does not give a breakdown of R&D spend, but a lot of it had to go to two crucial areas where Marvell leads competitors: TD smartphones for the Chinese market and next generation storage devices, including both HDD (hard disk) and SDD (flash memory based).

The main good news for Q1 was the continued rapid ramping of sales of Marvell-processor based TD-SCDMA smartphones in China. Marvell's chips not only include the processor, but most of the functions needed to run a smartphone (graphics, cellular modem, wi-fi, bluetooth). The middle-class masses are buying Android based smartphones that run on a this new 3G high-speed, invented-in-China protocol. Revenue from these chips was up 25% from Q4. Usually, for its mobile sector, Marvell sees a seasonal decline from Q4 to Q1, and indeed overall the sector was down 1% sequentially. Even then Marvell's mobile segment revenue was up 14% from year-earlier Q1.

Marvell has not competed very successfully for silicon in smartphones in the U.S. or Europe. It has space in some RIM Blackberry phones. When RIM tanked analysts predicted Marvell would have to abandon the space. Instead Marvell is turning its clear victory in China to its advantage in the global competition for the next generation of smartphones. Qualcomm's control of CDMA patents may be history as LTE becomes the new standard. I don't see Marvell beating out Qualcomm in the U.S. or Europe in the next few years, but its design philosophy is enabling it to turn the flank in China, much of Asia, and Africa.

In the hard drive space Sutardja specifically took on the claims of its chief competitor (LSI) about capturing market share, claims that have been echoed by several Wall Street analysts without fact checking. Marvell's storage sector revenue was up over 20% sequentially, in what is usually a seasonally sequentially down quarter. This sequential growth was only partly due to industry recovery from the Thailand floods.

After the floods Marvell's market share did drop to 56%, according to Sutardja. But that was based on which HDD makers were hurt worst by the flooding, not by the competitiveness of Marvell's controller chip rival. In Q2 quarter Marvell's market share should return to about 60%. The disruption of the industry in 2011 meant people produced whatever capacity drives they could. This quarter will see return to normalcy, which means favoring higher-capacity drives for any units that can be produced. Marvell leads in controller chips for high-capacity drives, including the new 500 GB/platter mobile drive solution, which is expected to ramp revenue another 50% in the current quarter. Sutardja also pledged to gain unit and revenue share going forward based on next-generation designs.

There are a lot of other pieces to the Marvell enterprise, but a good summary would be the guidance issued for fiscal Q2 2013 end July, 2012: 6 to 12% sequential revenue increase, or $840 to $890 million. A bit above the upper end of the range would put Marvell flat y/y.

While revenue has flattened since 2010, profit generation has been very healthy at these levels. As a result Marvell initiated a $0.06 per share per quarter dividend. $500 million was added to the share repurchase program. The cash balance was $2.2 billion.

Marvell would be able to buy back a substantial portion of its shares at its current share price.

The usual risks apply. Marvell faces competition in every market it serves, in particular chips for smartphones. My best guess, however, is that over the long run Marvell will continue to do what it did after its founding: take market share from rivals. It will also continue its expansion into new sectors.

Disclaimer: I am long Marvell. I seldom trade the stock and won't for a week after this article is published.

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Copyright 2012 William P. Meyers