TSMC's Sales Outlook Falls Short as Smartphone Demand Stalls

(Bloomberg) -- Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Co. forecast revenue below analysts’ estimates, as the sole supplier of Apple Inc.’s iPhone processors grapples with a stalling global smartphone market.

TSMC, which is also struggling with a slowdown in cryptocurrency mining demand, is expecting sales of $9.35 billion to $9.45 billion this quarter, lagging the $9.55 billion average estimate. That’s during a holiday season that often marks peak sales for customers including Apple, whose latest gadgets went on sale last month. For 2019, Taiwan’s largest company also foresees a possible bump in spending -- key to retaining its technological edge -- to as much as $12 billion.

While TSMC remains the exclusive maker of iPhone processors, it’s tackling a smartphone market that’s seeing little growth as customers take longer to replace devices and brands fail to create innovative designs. The world’s biggest contract maker of chips is also feeling the impact of volatility in digital currencies, which hurts demand for the semiconductors used to mine Bitcoin and others. And its holiday-quarter forecast may reflect uncertainty around growing U.S.-Chinese trade tensions.

“TSMC may by offering a conservative forecast intentionally due to macroeconomic uncertainties,” said Mark Li, an analyst with Sanford C. Bernstein.

Executives at TSMC -- a bellwether for the chip industry as well as an early barometer of iPhone demand -- have said they expect demand for premium devices to help offset crypto-sector lethargy in the second half. In July, Chief Executive Officer C. C. Wei lowered 2018 sales predictions to a high single-digit percentage growth in U.S. dollar terms, down from an already reduced projection of 10 percent. Then in August, a computer virus shut several of its plants for days.

TSMC’s mobile phone business should grow in the mid-single digits over the coming five years, Wei told reporters Thursday. But the high-performance computing, automotive and Internet of Things segments should expand by double-digits during that time as everyday objects become increasingly connected, he added.

“Our second half of 2018 business will be strongly supported by the 7-nanometer rampup, which is mainly driven by a few new smartphone launches, however our business is also negatively impacted by further weakening of cryptocurrency mining demand,” Wei said.

Net income fell to NT$89.1 billion ($2.9 billion) in the three months ended September, the Hsinchu, Taiwan-based company said. That compares with the NT$88.75 billion that analysts had expected. Previously reported sales for the September quarter were NT$260.3 billion.

TSMC has held up well during the recent selloff of technology stocks, which hammered chipmakers along with internet companies from the U.S. to China. The rout was spurred in part by U.S.-Chinese tensions but Wei told reporters he saw no short-term impact on his company. In the long run, any impact on TSMC would be minimized because its customers were diverse and spanned the globe, he added.

On Thursday, Chief Financial Officer Lora Ho said the company will earmark $10 billion to $12 billion annually for capital expenditure from 2019 onwards, from around $10 billion this year. That’s intended to sustain TSMC’s upgrade to leading-edge 7-nanometer technology, which speeds processing and saves on power consumption.

However, TSMC executives said that revenue from its most advanced chipmaking processes will account for less than $1 billion of the company’s total in 2019. That’s a sign that high-end customers, which include the likes of Apple, crypto-mining giant Bitmain and Huawei Technologies Co., may not be adopting the technology as quickly as expected after TSMC spent billions rolling it out.

Apple accounts for close to a fifth of TSMC’s revenue, according to data compiled by Bloomberg, suggesting the iPhone maker may not be moving to the cutting-edge process as soon as the technology becomes commercially available.

Shares of TSMC were little changed before the earnings were released and have risen about 3 percent this year.

“The street remains overly bullish on TSMC’s outlook for the near term as the street’s forecasts may have yet to capture the weakness in demand” for chips using older technologies, Stefan Chang, an analyst at Maybank Kim Eng, wrote in an Oct. 8 note.

©2018 Bloomberg L.P.