Marvell Technology Would Do Well To Start Paying Dividends

Aug.29.11 | About: Marvell Technology (MRVL)

Marvell Technology (NASDAQ:MRVL) makes semiconductor chips for hard disk drives, cell phones, networking and other devices. They have long dominated the HDD market, but have struggled in the smart phone market. In their second quarter of fiscal 2011 (Q2), ending July 30th, we probably saw an inflection point for smart phones based on Marvell chips. This space should be closely watched in Q3 and Q4.

Marvell's stock price is still at bargain levels, at about 10x non-GAAP trailing earnings. This is partly due to macroeconomic fears affecting the entire market, but more particularly Marvell fell off a recent 52-week high of $21.89 on January 18 due to poor results in Q4 of 2010 and Q1 of 2011, when revenues fell to $802 million, which was down 6% yoy. A few weeks ago it hit $11.94; Friday it closed at $12.89.

That period of weakness was partly due to slower than expected sales of chips for hard drives and networking, but most visibly was due to slow sales of chips for RIM's (RIMM) BlackBerrys. Given that Marvell execs have talked for years about conquering the smart phone market as they once conquered the HDD market, this led many analysts to conclude that Marvell was simply out of the race to provide CPUs for smart phones.

The smart phone chip market is certainly extremely competitive -- perhaps the most competitive semiconductor segment today. Marvell has been competing in the U.S. against the likes of Qualcomm (NASDAQ:QCOM) (leader in CDMA technology), nVIDIA (NASDAQ:NVDA), Texas Instruments (NYSE:TXN), Samsung (OTC:SSNLF), and Apple (NASDAQ:AAPL), which makes its own ARM-based phone CPUs. They have spent years and vast sums of money on R&D, essentially subsiding smart phone chip development with profits from their HDD chips. In the U.S. smart phone market, except for being in a couple of BlackBerry designs and sometimes supplying non-CPU chips for phones (for Bluetooth and Wi-Fi), they have been an also-ran.

Meanwhile, Marvell produced the only one-chip solution for the Chinese communication standard called TD-SCDMA. China Mobile, the largest Chinese wireless company, with 600 million customers, invested vast sums to develop a TD-SCDMA network, now in place in most Chinese cities. Marvell has worked closely with Chinese companies on this project, bringing about 1,000 engineers to the table. Also called OPhones, these smart phones run software on top of Android. Marvell is now referring to them as TD phones. The first generation of TD phones, released in 2010, were expensive and did not sell in large numbers. Essentially they tested the system.

Q2 2011 was when TD smart phones first shipped in sufficient numbers to be meaningful for Marvell investors. Over 20 models are available from manufacturers like ZTE, Motorola (NYSE:MMI), Huawei, and Samsung. TD smart phone revenue roughly doubled in Q2, causing Marvell's wireless segment revenues to increase 18% in the quarter. For Q3 double digit revenue growth for TD smart phone chips is the expectation. Marvell is also sampling solutions for the LTE smart phone market in China. Again, expect fierce competition, but Marvell should win a share of Chinese LTE slots in 2012.

Meanwhile, HDD revenue may be sluggish due to the slow PC growth rate, but it generates a lot of cash. Cash flow from operations in Q2 was $263 million. Free cash flow was $235 million. Cash and equivalents balance ended at $2.40 billion, up sequentially from $2.27 billion. Marvell repurchased $136 million, or 9 million shares, in the quarter and has authorized $1.5 billion for further repurchases.

The best cure for the low stock price, to my ears, was hearing that one use for cash could be starting to pay dividends. Compare Marvell's PE ratio to a semiconductor company like Microchip (NASDAQ:MCHP) that does pay dividends, and you can see that semiconductor investors are more interested in dividends than they were a few years ago. However, it would be a big change for Marvell, so don't count on it.

Disclosure: I am a long-term investor in Marvell stock.