Sony Falls as JPMorgan Questions Bull Case for Image Sensors

(Bloomberg) -- Sony Corp.’s lucrative smartphone-camera business may be heading for a slowdown.

The Tokyo-based company’s image sensor business is likely to weaken amid slowing momentum for Apple Inc.’s iPhones, an analyst at JPMorgan Chase & Co. wrote as he downgraded the company to neutral from overweight. IPhone X production will probably fall 50 percent quarter over quarter and the weakness is likely to continue for the first half of the year as demand for high-end smartphones plateaus, according to J.J. Park. Sony shares fell as much as 5.2 percent by midday in Tokyo.

Sony is the global leader in the production of image sensors, camera chips which convert light into digital pictures and videos. Despite a cooling in the smartphone industry, it has benefited from a trend to include multiple image sensors in each phone -- a technique used to create better-looking pictures and to power simple augmented-reality functions. In October, Sony raised its profit forecast for the current fiscal year in part because of sensor demand, and shares have rallied more than 60 percent over the last year.

Weak demand for the new iPhone X will hurt Sony, which gets half of its image sensor revenue from Apple, Park wrote. He also said the trend for adopting dual cameras is not as strong as first believed, including among Chinese phone makers, which will further hit Sony’s sales.

“Given high market expectation, in our view any shortfall in the Semiconductor operation will put pressure on the share price,” Park wrote. Sony declined to comment on JPMorgan’s report.

Sony Falls as JPMorgan Questions Bull Case for Image Sensors

Last week, KGI Securities analyst Kuo Ming-chi also cut his iPhone X outlook by 23 percent, citing weak demand in China and the product’s high price, and said production of the device will likely stop in mid-2018. Customers seemed to be opting for cheaper models of the iPhone, according to Cowen & Co., which suggested that Apple failed to cram enough new technology into the iPhone X to justify its $999 price tag.

In Sony’s latest quarter, image sensors accounted for 9.4 percent of revenue and 22 percent of operating profit. In October, the company upgraded its full-year outlook for the division, expecting operating profit at 150 billion yen from an earlier forecast for 130 billion yen, citing strong demand from phone makers. It has continued investing billions into the business, including a new production line at its Oita factory that by March was expected to boost supply to 100,000 wafers per month from 88,000.

Phone makers such as Apple and Xiaomi Corp. have been outfitting their latest models with two cameras on the back of each device, and in some cases on the front. That lets software compare two pictures to improve photo quality and gauge depth to perform basic AR functions.

But JPMorgan’s Park suggested consumers are shunning better picture quality for a cheaper price, saying that “high-end smartphones are clearly hitting a plateau along with higher product prices.” He said Sony has a 70 percent market share for high-end image sensors and is one of the few Apple suppliers whose shares have yet to adjust to waning demand for iPhone X.

“Despite a correction in Apple supply chain names, Sony has massively outperformed its global peers thanks to the structural trend of dual-cam,” Park.

©2018 Bloomberg L.P.