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National Semiconductor Corporation (NSM)

F3Q07 Earnings Call

March 8, 2007 4:30 pm ET

Executives

Long Ly - Investor Relations Manager

Brian Halla - Chairman and Chief Executive Officer

Lewis Chew - Chief Financial Officer

Don Macleod - President and Chief Operating Officer

Analysts

Michael Masdea - Credit Suisse

Chris Caso - Friedman, Billings, Ramsey

Kevin Cassidy - Piper Jaffray

Simona Jankowski - Goldman Sachs

Ross Seymore - Deutsche Bank

Chris Danely - JP Morgan

Douglas Freedman - American Technology Research

Uche Orji - UBS Securities

Romit Shah - Lehman Brothers

Presentation

Operator

Good afternoon. My name is Carrie and I will be your conference operator today. At this time, I would like to welcome everyone to the National Semiconductor third quarter 2007 fiscal results conference call. (Operator Instructions)

At this time, I would like to turn the conference over to Mr. Long Ly, Investor Relations Manager. Thank you. Mr. Ly, you may begin your conference.

Long Ly

Thank you. I would like again to welcome everyone to our call today. Joining me are Brian Halla, Chairman and Chief Executive Officer; Lewis Chew, Chief Financial Officer; and Don Macleod, President and Chief Operating Officer.

The purpose of today’s call is to discuss National Semiconductor's third quarter fiscal 2007 results which ended on February 25, 2007. As a reminder, today’s call will contain forward-looking statements and projections that involve risks and uncertainties that could cause actual results to differ materially. You should review the safe harbor statement contained in the press release published today as well as our most recent SEC filings for a complete description of those risks and uncertainties.

Also, in compliance with SEC Regulation FD, this call is open to all and is being broadcast live over our investor relations website.

For those of you who may have missed the press release or would like a replay of the call, you can find it on National’s IR website at www.national.com.

In today’s call, I will provide a recap of the third quarter financial results. Brian Halla will provide an overview of the company’s progress. Lewis Chew will expand on the third quarter results and provide an outlook for the fourth quarter. And Don Macleod will discuss our analog standard linear product progress. We will then take questions until about 2:30 p.m. Pacific Time.

The third quarter results were as follows. Sales were $431 million, down 14% from $501.6 million in Q2 fiscal year 2007, and down 21% from $547.7 million in last year’s third quarter. Gross margins were 59.8%, up from 58.9% in the prior quarter and down from 60.7% in last year’s third quarter.

Operating expenses were $166.1 million. Interest income was $9 million, and the effective tax rate for the quarter was 24.6%.

As a result, National posted GAAP net earnings of $71.5 million, or $0.22 per fully diluted share. The fully diluted share count for the quarter was 330.1 million shares.

Included in the GAAP financial results this quarter are the following one-time items: $6.1 million expense to in-process R&D for the acquisition of a small company called Xignal Technologies; and $8.5 million of tax benefits, primarily attributable to the restoration of the federal R&D tax credit, which was enacted into law during this quarter.

I will now turn it over to Brian Halla for an overview of the company’s progress. Brian.

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Brian Halla

Thank you, Long. The quarter behind us was a rough one, with the slowness in the beginning of the quarter unable to be offset by the better climate after the holidays. We do believe that for us, the bottom of our trough occurred sometime in early January and in fact, if we look at the activity since then, bookings picked up and held up at a consistent rate through the end of the quarter. As a result, we are able to realize a positive book-to-bill for the first time in three quarters.

Based on the momentum with which we ended the quarter and the areas of strength we now see, we will project growth in the current quarter and talk about some good things we see with our trough behind us.

So in my commentary, I will try to relay what we have been seeing in several areas, covering bookings, our utilization rates, our corresponding gross margins, from what we are seeing in ASPs, and I will try to set the stage for Donnie’s product and market commentary. I will summarize with a statement about how our outlook for the current quarter, our business model, and our commitment to our strategy and direction.

As I said earlier, about the second week in January, we saw bookings pick up and they held up at a consistent rate through the remainder of the quarter. Not necessarily a snap-back or panic, but well-paced.

In the handset space, for example, bookings were up nicely sequentially. With regard to communication infrastructure, we saw a similar pick-up in the cell phone base station market after a very poor result in Q2.

We ended the quarter with the collective backlog up at our top five OEMs. Donnie will offer more detail on this in a minute.

Overall, inventories came down by about $6 million, and given the lower revenue, we ended the quarter at 90 days. Having said that, we shipped less into our distributors than they shipped out, but we believe that channel inventories are in balance. Our factory utilization during the quarter was held pretty close to the mid 50 percentage points and our intention is to continue with a cautious approach for the quarter we are in, with no immediate plans to ramp up until we see how demand builds through the summer and the second-half.

Even with the utilization rates kept in the mid 50’s, our gross margins came it at just under 60%. Almost all the good news here was due to a richer mix of high-performance, higher value-added analog products, products which saw our ASPs improve another 10% year over year and 4% sequentially. Donnie will talk to how we are doing in each of the standard linear segments in a few minutes.

Our ability to hold the margins while reducing and holding utilization rates continues to give us confidence that we are on the right track and gives us optimism for our ongoing improvement in margins.

We continue to make progress in improving the value-add of our standard linear high-performance analog product line. During the quarter, we completed the acquisition of a small company called Xignal in Germany, which adds to our high-performance data conversion capability through an architecture called continuous times sigma delta. We will continue to add to our high-performance product arsenal and leverage our combined products in amplifiers, interface, and data conversion to offer our customers complete high-performance single fab solutions.

As the world puts more emphasis on green energy efficient system products and more features going into portable handhelds, which will want the extra features and the same if not longer battery life, the investments we have made in power management continue to pay off.

Within the quarter, our launch of a new generation of our simple switcher family of power management products was better received than any other launch in our history, with over 15,000 viewings of the online video already.

Looking forward, we are becoming more optimistic. By the way, in the quarter just finished, the sales of foundry wafers were negligible. That, combined with the inventory levels now in balance and in much better shape, you might say that for National, the decks have been cleared for growth. We are now who we are and who we want to be. We are a high-performance, high-value analog standard linear company that continues to add more and more value to our customers’ products, and we get paid for that. Paid for our efforts and products so that we can continue to invest in R&D, equipment and engineers who can develop more value-added projects with a differentiation and value of our customers’ next-generation products.

As we have seen over the last four years of repositioning this company, our customers are embracing our business model and their corresponding ability to add more value to their products, thanks to National Semiconductor.

Our ASP improvement demonstrates our customers’ acceptance of the new stripes of our company and their acknowledgement that our business model is beneficial, additive and supportive of theirs.

As we said in our press release, we think that revenue growth in the quarter in the range of 3% to 6% is achievable, and as we start to use more than 50% of our fabs, the margins of the newer, higher value-added products should be fun to watch.

Over to you, Lewis.

Lewis Chew

Thanks, Brian. Let me begin my section of this call by expanding the details on business patterns we saw in Q3, and then I will bridge those points to the outlook for the fourth quarter, and I will cover bookings first.

As we have already said, total company bookings were up about 3% in Q3 over Q2. Now, if I set aside the impact of declining foundry orders for the Cordless and Super I/O businesses which we sold off last year, the rest of the company’s bookings in ongoing businesses were up a little more than 4% sequentially.

Within the quarter, bookings were very low during all of December and through to the second week of January, actually running below the order rate for the comparable timeframe in the previous quarter, Q2.

However, from the middle of January through the end of the quarter, weekly bookings increased and ran at a consistently higher level. This improvement in the bookings run-rate was enough to drive total Q3 orders to be higher than they were in Q2.

From a channel perspective, bookings from distributors, OEMs and EMS’ all grew sequentially in Q3, of which the largest increase came from the distribution channel. In fact, distribution bookings in Q3 were roughly at the same level they were back in Q1 of this fiscal year.

During Q3, inventory at distributors went down again in terms of absolute dollars, as distributors continue to maintain a tight stance on inventory levels. The number of weeks of distributor inventory at the end of Q3 was comparable to what it was at the end of Q2, indicating that distributors reduced their inventories pretty much in line with the seasonal drop-off in their resale activity during the quarter.

Now let me make a couple of comments on what we saw in turns orders during Q3. Total turns in Q3 were less than Q2. In December and early January, turns orders were very low due to holiday seasonality as well as inventory-driven business conditions. But after the holiday season, we saw a noticeable pick-up in the level of turns orders that continued until the end of the quarter. So as we head into Q4, this is what we see: our opening 13-week backlog is just slightly above where it was at this same point last quarter, and we are expecting that turns orders will be higher in Q4, based on the better patterns we saw in the latter part of Q3.

As part of this, we expect that distributor resales will be seasonally higher in Q4 if for no other reason than the fact that there will be major holidays during our Q4. Considering where distributor inventories are right now, both in terms of dollars as well as number of weeks, their higher resale rates during Q4 should translate into higher turns orders for us.

Based on what we see right now, we are guiding revenues, as Brian said, in Q4 to be up 3% to 6% sequentially over Q3. Within that guidance range, we have assumed the inventory dollars at distributors will remain relatively unchanged.

Also, with respect to foundry revenues from the Cordless and Super I/O businesses, we have less than $3 million of these revenues in Q3 and that should roughly be the same in Q4.

Let me move on now to the rest of the income statement, starting first with gross margin. Our gross margin in Q3 was 59.8%, up from 58.9% in Q2. During Q3, our fab utilization based on wafer starts was about 56%, which is down slightly from the prior quarter. We also reduced our in-house inventory balances by about $6 million during Q3. The gross margin improvement in Q3 was really driven by ongoing improvements in our product portfolio mix, consistent with comments I have made in previous earnings calls. We also benefited from factory efficiencies and reduced spending over the holiday period.

All of this was partially offset by the lower revenue volume as well as the decrease in factory utilization.

In Q4, we plan to maintain total wafer starts at around the same level and we anticipate that our ending inventories on hand will be comparable to what they were at the end of Q3. We anticipate that our gross margin will improve to slightly over 60% for the quarter, and of course I am talking about Q4. This includes the impact of approximately $6 million of stock compensation expense included in the cost of sales, which is slightly below the $6.5 million impact we had in Q3.

By the way, total company stock compensation expenses in Q3 were $29.5 million, of which $6.5 million was in cost of sales, $8.4 million was in R&D expense, and $14.6 million was in SG&A expense.

We are projecting that total stock compensation in Q4 will be approximately $25 million, of which in addition to the amount I highlighted earlier for cost of sales, $6 million to $7 million would be included in R&D expense and $12 million to $13 million would be included in SG&A expense.

Total R&D expense in the fourth quarter, including stock compensation, is projected to range from $94 million to $96 million.

Total SG&A expense in Q4 is expected to range from $76 million to $78 million, which again includes the impact of stock compensation.

Our Q4 operating expenses in total are projected to be higher than what we incurred in Q3 as we come off the holiday period and the savings that come with that, and resume to what I might refer to as a more normalized rate of spending. Also, within the R&D expense projection, we now have incremental ongoing spending related through our acquisition of Xignal during Q3.

The other income and expense line in Q4 should be relatively minor, around $1 million of expense. Interest income is expected to be around $8 million, and the effective tax rate for Q4 is projected to be between 31% and 32%.

Let me wrap up with a few comments on the balance sheet and return on capital. In Q3, capital expenditures were about $24 million. We are projecting Q4 capital spending to range from $25 million to $30 million and, as I mentioned last quarter, one of the key projects we are continuing to work on is converting some capacity in the Texas fab from six-inch wafers to eight-inch wafers.

We ended the quarter with approximately 90 days of inventory and about 36 days sales outstanding in our receivables.

During the third quarter, we bought back $141 million of our stock, which was a little over 6 million shares, and ended the quarter with $770 million of cash reserves.

In our press release today, we announced that our Board has approved another $500 million of stock buy-back to add to our ongoing program.

Operating margin in Q3 was about 21% and return on invested capital for the quarter was nearly 18%. Both of these figures include the impact of stock compensation expenses.

Now, I would like to turn it over to Don Macleod who will talk more about products, markets and our growth opportunities. Don.

Don Macleod

Thank you, Lewis. I will now briefly expand on some of the market and product trends that we saw in the quarter, and then I will talk about our growth focus, first in our largest product area, power management and then in two other analog product focus areas, data converters and interfaces.

First, let me cover trends by end-market. From a sales perspective, as we indicated, overall company sales were down sequentially by about 14% this quarter. Sales into the wireless handset market were down by less than 10% sequentially, while sales to the display, communication, networking, and PC markets declined sequentially, in line with the company average.

Sales into industrial, medical, automotive, consumer and other broader market categories in aggregate declined by about 10% sequentially. As Brian mentioned earlier, shipments to our distribution channel in the quarter were below their resale sides, accounting for some of these broader market sales reductions.

Looking at booking trends in the quarter by end market, overall company bookings grew sequentially by about 3%. Bookings from customers in the wireless handset market grew by about 14%, and the communications networking market, led by wireless base station customers, orders grew by about 25% sequentially.

Display market bookings grew by about 5% sequentially. PC market bookings dropped by about 10%, and finally bookings from the industrial, medical, automotive, consumer and other broader markets were in aggregate flat with last quarter.

From a product perspective, using the semiconductor industry association’s WSTS product categorization, power management products accounted for 47% of our sales in the quarter; amplifiers, 24%; interface, 8%; and data converters, 5%. In all, standard linear products accounted for 84% of this quarter’s sales, up from 74% in last year’s third quarter and 78% last quarter.

Let me now expand on our view on some of the opportunities we are focusing on in some of our analog standard linear product categories. In power management, all the questions we get from investors seem to be focused only on the mobile phone as the driver of growth in this product area. According to Databeans, a market research company focused on the analog IC market, mobile phone applications were expected to consumer only 17% of this $7 billion market in calendar year ’06. And by the way, they describe the power management market as the analog power IC market. These terms are interchangeable.

While National Semiconductor is focused on higher value power management applications for the mobile phone, I am going to cover that later, the other 83% of this large power management market is also full of growth opportunities. As an example, also according to Databeans, 42% of this overall power management IC market comes from applications using switching regulators, where National Semiconductor has brand leadership.

End-customers using switchers come from many different markets. After all, just about every form of electronic system needs a power supply, and one of our brands in this area, Simple Switcher, has been the market leader since we first introduced this family of easy-to-use simple switchers in the late 1980’s.

At the end of January this year as Brian mentioned, we introduced the latest generation of our simple switcher family to the broader marketplace. Its initial reception in its first month is a good indication of its broad potential use and its brand strength. In the first month since launch, over 15,000 engineers around the world went on to our website to download the seven-minute how-to video, and over 7,000 engineers actually designed and simulated a power supply module on a web bench customer support tool.

In addition, our global new product introduction sample distributor sold out of all the initial stocking inventory of simple switcher parts. Some of these web-based power supply designs quickly turned into prototypes. This has been our fastest ramping broad market product launch at least since the web became a product promotional interface to the worldwide power supply designer community.

As I indicated earlier, the mobile phone and other portable consumer devices is a growth focus area for our power management products. Our focus on growth in the mobile phone has an emphasis on participating in higher value and higher performance segments of this market. Here are some examples of opportunities in power management for mobile phones, where our value helps differentiate or improve the performance in the phone.

First, in the RF and RF power amplifier to the phone, as phones move to 3G and become more and more data-enabled, the power amplifier, which is the greatest consumer of battery power in most phones, becomes even less power-efficient. Our super family of switchers significantly improves the power efficiencies of the power amplifier. It is designed into both modules being shipped to mobile phone manufacturers from the power amplifier supplier and, for example, in 3G reference designs from Ericsson Mobile Platforms, which are licensed by some of the top handset manufacturers.

In powering mobile phone processors and applications processors, our PMICs enable battery efficiencies and are shipping, for example, in the new LG Shine CDMA clamshell phone that was highlighted at CGSM in Barcelona last month, and an MP3-enabled handset shipping from another prominent tier-one phone provider.

Our power management products have also focused on driving power to small FPDs, or flat panel displays, that are increasingly replacing LED displays in phones and other consumer handheld devices.

Our lighting systems and high brightness flash LED drivers for camera applications, for example, are in phones for market leaders.

In all these cases, we provide value to high-performance power management and the consumer enjoys differentiated features, such as longer battery life, brighter displays, et cetera. And these features are not normally present in the lower-end or developing country entry level phones and are therefore not initially integrated out.

Another product growth focus area for us is in data converters. According to Databeans, the dataconverter worldwide market grew by 10.9% last calendar year. That is calendar year ’06 over calendar year ’05. We grew out equivalent dataconverter sales in that same time period by about 25%. Although dataconverters today only represent 5% of our sales, they represent a large long-term growth opportunity for us.

In past earnings calls, we have talked about our technology position in ultra high-speed 8-bit dataconverters. Now in addition, as we mentioned earlier, at the end of January we announced our entry into the high-performance sigma delta dataconverter area. Part of this capability is provided through the acquisition of Xignal Technologies in Munich, Germany. We are working on continuous time sigma delta technologies.

This data converter architecture promises to have twice the dynamic range and half the power consumption of conventional pipeline architecture. In dataconverters, we have now doubled our design engineering resources in the last two-and-a-half years, and the early results are beginning to show in calendar year ’06 market share.

Another standard linear growth category for us is in the interface area. Also according to Databeans, the worldwide interface market grew by about 11% in calendar year ’06 over calendar year ’05, and we grew at equivalent interface business by about 16% over the same time period.

Here we are focused on high-speed interface applications, such as broadcast video infrastructure as it positions to HD TV, wireless base stations and office industrial and automotive applications where printers, copiers, camera sensors and factory automation devices increasingly need to communicate with their hosts at faster and faster speeds.

In all our analog standard linear product areas, our goal is now to focus on growth, specifically growth in these higher-value application areas. Higher-value focus is already paying off. As Brian indicated at the beginning of this call, our analog standard linear ASPs, or average selling prices, increased again by about 10% over last year’s Q3 and also, by the way, by 4% over the immediately preceding quarter.

ASPs increased in power management, amplifiers and data converters over last year’s third quarter. In interface, our highest ASP product line already, our focus here is on getting higher revenue growth.

As Lewis indicated earlier, our business model is demonstrating our improved analog standard linear product positioning. The higher performance and higher ASP enable us to generate overall company gross margins just below 60%.

This is in what may well be the trough of this semiconductor cycle, with the fab utilization running at only the mid 50s percent. The decks are now clear of the low-margin foundry sales for previously sold businesses, and the higher margin power management amplifier interface and dataconverter products now make up 84% of our revenues.

With revenue growth, mid-60% gross margins for the overall company are now within our site.

And now over to you, Long, to moderate the Q&A.

Long Ly

Thanks, Don. At this time, I will ask the operator to open up the lines to begin the Q&A session. Please limit yourself to one question and one follow-up, so we can accommodate as many people as possible. Operator.

Question-and-Answer Session

Operator

(Operator Instructions)

Your first question comes from Michael Masdea with Credit Suisse.

Michael Masdea - Credit Suisse

Maybe the first one for Lewis. Certainly with the order trends that you are talking about and the inventory situation, et cetera, it makes some sense to get a little bit more optimistic, but I guess given the surprises we have seen the last couple of quarters, why bank on higher turns? Are you that confident? Is it really that strong? Help us out there.

Lewis Chew

Sure, and in fact, my answer is actually going to be embedded in the way you ask that question, Mike. The higher turns that we are anticipating this quarter is primarily a seasonally-driven thing. As you can imagine, in the quarter we just finished, there is quite a number of holiday periods where effectively not a lot of resales were occurring. I would say my answer actually agrees with your question. We are not necessarily anticipating an optimistic up-tick in turns. It is more a matter of the turns rate matching the fact that in this quarter, you do not face all the holidays they had last quarter.

In fact, that is really what makes up the bulk of what we are anticipating in the additional turns.

Michael Masdea - Credit Suisse

Okay, that is helpful. That is good. Then, maybe for Donnie, both on the wireless handset and the base station side, is there any kind of mix benefit that is playing out in terms of your strength in orders there? In other words, are you seeing either a richer mix of handsets toward the high-end or more 2.5G or 3G where you have more content, or is it just straight across-the-board strength coming from those customers now?

Don Macleod

Two things; you talked about handsets and you talked about base stations. Let me just cover base stations. We did see an up-tick in orders from the base station marketplace. As we move to 3G standards, we tend to have a higher participation of our interface products in those 3G base stations. This particular quarter where we saw more activity, more orders in the base station area was actually out of China, specifically in the TDS CDMA infrastructure build-out that is beginning to happen in China. We saw higher order rates out of that, along with a more stable order rate pattern out of the European base station manufacturers. Brian referred to the fact that we actually had a pretty slow activity from an orders perspective and the base station marketplace in the second quarter. It picked up nicely in the third quarter and these were the two factors.

In the handset market, what I refer to was the fact that bookings actually grew in the quarter, and that is pretty natural, given the fact that there is a seasonal nature in the handset marketplace. What we saw booking was the orders for the beginning of the calendar year, whereas in the previous quarter, our November-ending quarter, what we had seen was a booking pattern reflecting the fact that we were really booking for the early part of the post-holiday season, with holiday impact in that.

We are actually pretty happy with the way the mobile phone market transitioned over the end of the holiday season. The customers that we are working with in general do not appear to have inventory and appear to be moving forward with new products that incorporate our stuff in it in an orderly fashion. So I think that is a generally positive statement.

Long Ly

Operator, let’s have the next caller.

Operator

Your next question comes from Chris Caso with Friedman, Billings, Ramsey.

Chris Caso - Friedman, Billings, Ramsey

Thank you. Brian, you in your prepared comments talked a bit about clearing the decks, and Don, you spoke of that as well. As you guys have been going over the past few years, you have been sort of shedding some business units, but you have also been walking away from some lower-end analog business. As you guys go forward, is what you are trying to say here is that you to be walking away from business anymore, I guess from the business that you are shipping right now? Is this the base that you are going to grow from as we go into the next cycle? Could you clarify it a little bit more?

Brian Halla

I think that is exactly the right question, Chris. First of all, the businesses we shed typically were businesses that either we found out that the demand did not materialize or they were businesses that too many other people could be in, like JPRS chipsets. We were one of 12 suppliers.

In terms of the commodities, I would say that the nature of this company a decade ago was that we would get down and dirty with almost anybody on anything, and when customers would ask us to second-source in exchange for a significant piece of the business, we fell for the bait.

We have walked away from those, as you point out, and actively told customers that we do not want to do anything that somebody else is already doing. So we have actively done that.

There is another thing that has been going on behind the scenes. Donnie and I for the last three years have run a meeting of all of our TLDs and marketers to look at products we define and just how much value those add in the marketplace and who valued they are going to be by the customer.

I think that the organization has really responded well in terms of defining and building products that are more highly-valued by our customers and with that bring a higher ASP and a higher gross margin. I would say that we are just at the beginning of that pipeline, starting to materialize. As we said, the richer mix of product is responsible almost solely for the margin improvement this quarter, since the utilization rate was essentially flat and the foundry business is largely behind us.

I would say it is all the things we mentioned plus a real focus on product definition, starts control, making sure that the products we put out in the market truly do add value.

Long Ly

Operator, let’s have the next caller.

Operator

Your next question comes from Tore Svanberg with Piper Jaffray.

Kevin Cassidy - Piper Jaffray

Hi, this is Kevin Cassidy for Tore. On the handset business, can you tell what the mix was of high-end versus low-end, and has that changed?

Lewis Chew

We generally do not try to track our business apart, high-end versus low-end because generically speaking, we tend to aim more for the middle to high-end anyway. We generally do not play a lot in the low-end, so I think you should just look at us as being more middle to the high-end supplier in totality as opposed to okay, we saw growth in high-end but shrinkage in low-end. I think that is probably the most fair way for me to answer that from a factual standpoint.

Kevin Cassidy - Piper Jaffray

How about if I can go back over to distribution, you are expecting to keep their inventories flat in terms of weeks quarter over quarter?

Lewis Chew

Well, no, that is not what I said. I try to make sure I am very clear on these calls because I know you guys care about both, so what I said in my prepared comments is that our current revenue projection assumes that we will keep inventory dollars flat. Again, if I just play out the way we projected the numbers, since I have also indicated that turns are likely to go up because resales are going to go up, if all of that plays out, then the weeks of inventory will go down because resales will be up but inventory dollars will be flat.

Long Ly

Operator, next caller, please.

Operator

Your next question comes from Simona Jankowski with Goldman Sachs.

Simona Jankowski - Goldman Sachs

Thank you very much. Nice job on the margins. Can you maybe comment, what kind of trajectory of the recovery we might expect? I realize none of us can really predict the future, but maybe if you kind of compare back to ’05 when from the fourth quarter, which was in November of ’04, to the fourth quarter later period, you had an increase in top line of about 21%. Starting out today, what would be the factors that would cause you guys to be recovering either faster or slower than that?

Lewis Chew

If I go back to the 04-05 cycle, which we did try to take some lessons from there, we actually troughed in that cycle in the Q2 timeframe, and then we had kind of a flat quarter from Q2 to Q3. And then after that, growth resumed. So on this cycle, I would equate our upcoming Q4 to that same timeframe and, you know, same thing. When you are coming off the bottom, hopefully, of what is a trough, I think you want to be prudent about any expectations about growth. I think the 3% to 6% growth we put out there for next quarter, we have explained what the assumptions are, which is small bit of increase in backlog and then a natural increase in turns from seasonality, going back to what Mike Masdea asked.

Then, beyond that, I think it is a little bit tougher to answer. We have a lot of new products in our pipeline. I think it is probably not unintentional that we actively talked about growth in this quarter, which is what this management team planned.

As Brian and Don both said, with all the dispositions pretty much behind us and the decks cleared, we are free now to talk about growth. I think it would be hard for me to, coming off of a quarter down 14% to talk about a quarter being up 20%. That seems like -- I will take it if you will give it to me, but for right now, I think we want to take it one step at a time. As Don said, we are not going to get ahead of ourselves on the factory side. We have a good mix of inventory.

What I can say is that if and when that growth occurs, we do feel very comfortable that there will be very strong leverage on both the margin side and on the bottom line.

Simona Jankowski - Goldman Sachs

Thank you for that, Lewis. Just a quick follow-up, if I may, on your brand recognition, and maybe that is a question for Brian or Donnie. You had commented in the past that you are not really, as often as you would like, perhaps, being recognized as a high-performance standard linear supplier. Now obviously your margins will put you in that echelon of suppliers. I was just curious if there was any initiative you can point to or anything you track, perhaps, that would suggest if that brand recognition is improving.

Brian Halla

Let me start out and then I will turn it over to Donnie, but we both talked about the phenomenal reception of the latest family of simple switchers that we launched, and the 15,000 downloads of the online video and the 7,000 designs and all that. That is kind of our heritage. That is power management. That’s invented the first family and when we say we have something like that, it is natural that people would flock. I think we also did a much better job in the launch of that family.

Where we would like to be much, much better recognized is for the work we have done in the area of dataconverters, where we have by far the most powerful lowest power consumption dataconverters in the marketplace and have had. What happened to the customer base is just generically they say “data conversion, I guess that is ADI” and so we would like to start getting some of that kind of brand recognition where we have made a lot of investments over the years and start to be recognized for those investments.

I think the margins are one thing but we are probably not nearly as proud of the margin growth as we are with the strength and improvement of the portfolio.

Don Macleod

I just want to add, on the brand equity, I am not a great believe in some of these market research brand equity surveys that you see out there. The evidence of proof of brand is when people actually come in to check it out. We gave you some of the numbers in our simple switcher launch here in terms of what people have downloaded, for example, the how-to video. But the key to us was a number that I did not mention, which is the over 80,000 engineers who actually opened the newsletter to find out about the product once we announced it. I think that in itself speaks volumes about the number of people who want to see what National is doing on the power management space.

By the way, one should not just make an assumption that all of these people work out there for small companies. When we look at the people who do simulations and designs with this new set of products, they include some very well-known names, so it is not just an issue of the broad market through distribution. So our brand equity continues to live based on the quality of the products that we come out with, and this is a good example of where it sequential increase getting reinforced.

Long Ly

Next question, Operator.

Operator

Your next question comes from Ross Seymore with Deutsche Bank.

Ross Seymore - Deutsche Bank

Just a couple of questions on the high-performance category as a whole. Your revenue stream has been a lot more volatile, even if we ex out the non-core business, the Super I/O and the foundries, et cetera, that you have exited. Why do you think that is, versus the high-performance peer group?

Lewis Chew

Let me start with that, Ross, and then I will turn it over to my brethren here. The pragmatic answer is in the last three, four years, we probably have been doing as much repositioning as anybody out there. I think any time you go through that kind of repositioning, it is not illogical to see some of the volatility. Even the previous question that Simona asked about branding, you know, is National even recognized today as a so-called high-performance analog provider? A lot of the new parts that we have been coming out with for the last couple of years will take some time to get hold.

So at this point, Ross, I think it is fair to point that out factually, but hopefully we can just leave that behind us. One thing I did was I looked, from the 04-05 cycle to this cycle, and we reduced our volatility in margins by half, meaning that our total drop-off was barely 3 points and it was about 5.5, 6 points last time. Our earnings per share at the trough is significantly higher than it was last time, and really the volatility you saw was in the top line, which some of that was self-induced and some of that is just a natural transition. We did not come into this cycle necessarily viewed as a high-performance analog provider. Maybe we are exiting this cycle with more credibility as a supplier, and hopefully what we do within the next cycle, that volatility will start to reduce. But at this point, it is almost like crying over spilled milk. There are a lot of factors I think that affected that pattern that you seek.

Ross Seymore - Deutsche Bank

To me, it was a revenue-based question. The margin side is clearly a strong accomplishment, but more so just seeing if that sort of volatility would continue going forward, and you kind of answered that.

The second part of that high-performance category-based question is the inventory days being up at 90, is that partly because most of your peer group carry more inventory so this is just part of being a high-performance analog company now? Or would you expect to actually get those inventories back down to the level you had historically?

Lewis Chew

That 90 days computation, Ross, is probably affected most by the fact that in one quarter, undesirably, I should say, our revenues did drop off 14%. Our inventory dollars came down this quarter and last. I think between the last two quarters, we have brought down inventory dollars by some $24 million to $22 million.

The answer to your question generically is yes, as a high-performance analog provider, we probably will on a go-forward basis carry more inventory than we used to. I would also say for the record that we have not had history of any inventory write-offs or unusual stuff like that. We are also trying to do a better job of how we characterize that inventory, so that we have flexibility now that we carry a broader swath of part numbers. We have more strategic inventory in die bank versus finished goods.

I would say pragmatically no, I did not necessarily want the inventory to be at 90 days, but when you have inventory drop off 14% in the quarter -- sorry, revenue drop off 14% in a quarter, some of that is going to happen.

I think going forward, we will still try to manage in a range that is probably below 90 days, but it will probably be a little bit higher than it was historically.

Long Ly

Next caller, please.

Operator

Your next question comes from Chris Danely with JP Morgan.

Chris Danely - JP Morgan

Assuming the business and the industry continues to recover, what can we expect op-ex to do in fiscal ’08? Also, what should we be thinking about as a typical revenue growth for Q1?

Lewis Chew

Op-ex going forward, we have kind of had the stance of keeping op-ex tightly under control. We actually took measures to reduce op-ex in the short-term. If you look at the numbers over the last several quarters, we brought it down from where it was, but you will notice that we did not have lay-offs or anything like that, which we are actually kind of proud of.

I think going forward, the natural drivers for our op-ex will be more the annual raises and stuff like that, and to a certain extent, additional investments in R&D. But I think we can get a lot of leverage out of our SG&A, so the SG&A will probably be more of a stable number.

In terms of Q4 to Q1, if I go based on normal historical seasonality, that is the summer quarter for us, it would typically be down slightly, if I look over a long period of history. If you go back to Simona’s question about what each cycle looks like, it is very hard to predict at this point. I think at this point, we want to be cautious, but that would be the normal seasonality from Q4 and Q1.

Chris Danely - JP Morgan

As a follow-up, assuming everything continues to recover, what would your gross margins be approximately when utilization starts to get back up into say the mid-80s.

Lewis Chew

Yes, at the mid-80s, you will hear the three of us sound pretty happy on this call. I do not want to make any jokes about Viagra or anything like that, but anyway, I think basically where we are structured right now is I think prior to getting the 80% utilization and presumably the revenue that comes with that, because we are not going just build inventory for the sake of inventory, you are likely to see us hit our margin target, which I know you just took over coverage for us, Chris, but our stated margin target right now is 65%.

We feel pretty comfortable that the portfolio that exists today drives that kind of a margin. Then, if you weave in the question that Chris Caso asked about walking away from business, none of that is dependent on us so-called walking away from business. I think the natural trajectory is towards that mid-60s level.

Operator

Your next question comes from Doug Freedman with American Technology Research.

Douglas Freedman - American Technology Research

Nice results on holding the gross margins here. If you could talk a little bit about unit share out in the marketplace. When I talk to distributors and customers alike, I get the sense that the change in posture of National’s target of what pieces of business you are interested in really has you re-engaging with new customers and disengaging with others. Can you help me understand where you see that going and how those relationships are changing and what type of unit share you think, when you think you are going to start retaking what I would call unit share in the analog market?

Don Macleod

Doug, I will take that. Clearly unit share is not an objective of ours, and you made that point. If we look at the profile of our business over the past few years, we have been emphasizing that it is a value versus volume story in terms of how we improve the top line and the margins.

Part of the discussion earlier about the clearing the decks discussion is that we have repositioned our portfolio away from a lot of the volume markets. Someone asked the question about our cyclicality in terms of the revenues.

If we look at, for example, our commodity business, the purest definition of commodities, where there are many other sources of the same devices, we are essentially out of that business. That was a very significant unit volume business for us two, three, four and five years ago. Actually, if you look at where we are in that business today, you could look at $20 million to $30 million of the revenue decline between now and a year ago and say that was purely the last vestiges of getting out of the commodity business.

Even beyond commodities, there are a lot of other areas where we are repositioning our product portfolio. For example, in power management, some of the lower end low drop-out regulators, which are volume businesses going into very many different applications, including in some cases in the mobile phone market. We have also focused away from some of those to ensure that our R&D dollars and our sales effort is focused on higher ASP products that provide higher value to the customers.

Your discussion about distribution is actually a very good one, because part of our concession here over the past few years has been to reposition ourselves in front of distribution at the company with the higher performance analog portfolio. We think we are making good progress in doing that.

I think that is part of the discussion that reflects in those higher margins we are showing in our results as we go forward here. So the distribution repositioning is well underway, and getting out of the units game is also a big part of the proposition. After all, there is a huge productivity benefit in us focusing on higher-value products with higher ASPs. Distribution is just one part of it, where they focus on the value, not the volume and not the commodities but the higher performance products. I think that part of our strategy is well underway. That is one of the attributes that adds to this the decks are cleared, the position is very evident; we are who we are and we are now moving forward to grow from that rather than shrink by getting out of businesses.

So this is now the right time to put that on the table.

Brian Halla

Doug, I just wanted to respond to one thing that was in your question, that we walk away from customers. I would say that our philosophy here is there are no bad customers, but there is bad product definition. We have said before that we tend to de-emphasize markets where the first question they ask you when you show them new technology is when are you going to have a second source? We tend to do less of that kind of business.

But in terms of walking away from customers, as Donnie said, when we started looking at some of those customers that had designed in a simple switcher were gone to the web bench, these are customers that we may have done business with in the past and had a hiatus and now they are back, but it is across the map.

So it is just a matter of us making sure that we keep adding value with our products, the products that we ship out there and making sure that we get paid for that value.

Douglas Freedman - American Technology Research

If I could, just two real quick follow-ups. Do you feel like you have the technologies you need to grow the business, or should we look for you to continue to make acquisitions of teams that have technology that you are interested in?

Lastly, Lewis, if you look at the utilization, you said you are just around 50%. It is going to be quite a while before anybody has modeled $800 million a quarter or $900 million a quarter. Are there opportunities to scale back on the infrastructure?

Lewis Chew

Let me take that one first, Doug, and actually, the utilization was 56% for the quarter, but remember that we still were burning inventory. What happens is as you get closer to the 85 that Chris mentioned, you start adding, so think of that window of between let’s call it 60 and 85 as our opportunity. We have run those same numbers and we do recognize that it would take substantial revenue growth to fill that. The good news though is that they perform so amazingly well.

And just for everyone on the audience, we have a very good structure in our manufacturing. We do not really feel like we have duplicate facilities, so I think part of my answer is no, we are not looking to shut anything down because we have one old fab, one medium-aged fab, and one new fabs, and every one of them contributes to our revenue stream right now.

We do do the bulk of our manufacturing in-house, and so that is why we are putting it on the table in this call, that we recognize and we have initiatives to grow the company and fill the fabs with good value products, not with just pure volume.

What was the first part of your question again, Doug?

Douglas Freedman - American Technology Research

It was on the technologies -- do you have the technologies you need to do that growing is really -- we saw you buy a dataconverter technology here or team. Are there other teams out there that you are -- should we think of that as being part of this strategy of growing the top line as well?

Brian Halla

We have been very consistent in saying that we are a standard linear analog company and that is four pretty well-defined segments, one of which is data conversion and in data conversion, we knew that with a continuous time sigma delta architecture, we could get a very high performance data conversion capability at, as Donnie said, half the power consumption of the pipeline architecture, so that was a natural for us.

We are always on the lookout for anything that can add to our capability in going after those four standard linear markets that you know very well. It would be a way of life for us to pick up design groups that have critical mass where their technology supports our thrust in the standard linear analog. Donnie, do you want to add to that?

Don Macleod

I will just add that obviously we have a lot of engineers who are involved in designing new products. Our challenge is to get them to focus their efforts on the highest value applications, which often require the best technology, whether it is process technology or design techniques. We have the capabilities in-house. It is not like we have huge gaps where we need to fill that. It is more a question of moving the efforts of the people all the way through the sales force to these higher technology parts.

We do our own process development for these analog opportunities, so it is only a question of us pointing our profit development in the right direction.

Long Ly

Operator, let’s have the next caller, please.

Operator

Your next question comes from Uche Orji with UBS Securities.

Uche Orji - UBS Securities

Just a few questions for Lewis. One is on the EMS. I remember last conference call, that was an area where there was some difficulty. You have seen some improvement. How much of this improvement is a reflection of optimism ahead of June quarter and how much is a reflection of a strong sell-through at the Chinese New Year? Because if you look at the results of the EMS companies in aggregate, inventories have not really come down much. Can you just give us some color as to what you think is the driver of this demand?

Lewis Chew

My honest answer, Uche, is I had tried to forget about that EMS until you just reminded me of it, so I suppose I will have to address it. In the quarter, we did not see the same dramatic drop-off in bookings like we did in Q2.

You guys may recall that issue that Uche is referring to is that in Q2, when our bookings went down quite a bit for total company, I indicated that EMS bookings went down even more and that did not happen in Q3. That having been said, it is true that our opening backlog for EMS heading into this quarter is lower than it was last quarter -- a little bit, not a lot, and that is factored into our revenue guidance.

If I had to read the tea leaves, to just be clear here, EMS’ are not required to report inventory to us and in many cases, we are relatively small to these EMS’. As I was pointing out before, our total EMS revenue is not a big number to begin with, so we have to kind of guess based on the numbers they show us, which is bookings and revenue.

My guess is that during the March quarter, they will have actually burnt off some of their inventories and maybe heading for June, that rate of burn-off will not be as dramatic. Because obviously I cannot ignore the fact that the backlog is down but the amount the backlog is down heading into Q4 is not as extensive as it was heading into Q3.

Uche Orji - UBS Securities

Okay, that is helpful. Maybe this is for Don, on the wireless part of your business. You spent some time explaining how you are different on the power management side. But if you look at solutions at companies like TI and maybe Infinia, one can only expect that the integrated solutions will move more towards the mid-range sometime next year. Do you think there is enough differentiation in what you do to allow you to continue to expand within wireless power management, regardless of the fact that we are seeing more and more integrated solutions moving up from the ultra low-end module, or the mid-range over the next couple of years?

Don Macleod

That is an interesting question at the end of the day. I mentioned some of the capabilities that National has today. For example, I talked about how we focus on improving the efficiency of the RF block of the mobile phone as it moves to 3G standards and data-enabled capabilities. That is certainly not going to get integrated into some base plan. In fact, there is a whole separate block in the phone.

If you look at the functions that we talked about for applications processors, powering applications processors, these are all driven by functions that tend to differentiate individual phones. Some phones have MP3, some have whatever, web-enabled capability where you need a separate processor or some kind of more sophisticated camera, or a camera that requires flash lighting to light it up in dark situations. You just go through the list.

When we power displays in mobile phones, we are powering the FPDs, the small FPDs in the expensive mobile phones. I mean, they are not going to get integrated into the lower-end phones because the manufacturer does not want the lowest common denominator. The phone guy wants to differentiate his phone versus somebody else. The lighting management systems that we put into mobile phones, different manufacturers have different backlighting regimes, they have different colors that they want to use for, and different output levels for differentiation from similar models.

We play into the space where differentiation is the name of the game, rather than the lowest common denominator volume phones. I do not see how consumers will not continue to demand that differentiation. At the end of the day, the ultimate reflection of that is in battery life, and these sophisticated features, they perform great, but if they reduce your battery life, you won’t accept them.

I don’t see a problem there, and likewise in the audio side. We have moved away from supplying pure traditional power audio amplifiers to audio sub-systems and integrations that play into phones with multiple audio capabilities. These will still continue to be demanded.

Uche Orji - UBS Securities

Just one last question on China, and you raised this, the TDS CDMA aggressive trials as being one of the drivers. Can you just give us some color as to what your overall exposure to China is? If you can give us some numbers, that would be great. But more importantly also, are you taking sockets from anyone? Do you think you are taking share within this growth in China, or is it just existing basis for business expanding along with the overall improvement in China?

Also, if you have any insight as to when we will see more of an up-tick in the 3G rollout for Europe and the U.S. If you do have an insight, that will be helpful. Thanks.

Don Macleod

It will be a very short answer, which for TDS CDMA base stations, this is a whole new market and our interface products are not replacing anyone else’s. It is a new growth opportunity. As you said yourself, it is early rollout.

Long Ly

Operator, let’s move on to the next caller. We have time for one more question.

Operator

Your next question comes from Romit Shah with Lehman Brothers.

Romit Shah - Lehman Brothers

If I could go back to some of the earlier questions, you have had several companies at the start of the year say that January improved and then ADI said last month that January and February were better, and now your outlook for May looks fairly positive. How are you guys thinking about the velocity here as the business turns up? I mean, if I go back and look at the ’04 period, you guys following that correction did have four to five quarters of very good growth.

Brian Halla

I would say that first of all, to re-characterize the quarter, the back-half was certainly better than the first-half. One thing that I said to address your question about velocity is we did not see a snap back or anything that would indicate panic. We just kind of saw an orderly return to a pretty consistent bookings level that kept the pace through the quarter and continues on in the current quarter.

I do not think there is any panic going on out there, but for us it looks like a more normal bookings pattern. I will let Donnie discuss it.

Don Macleod

Yes, there is also a note of caution in our view going forward here. We are not saying that everything is onwards and upwards, because in a normal year at this time of year, you would see a recovery in the business and we are looking to see what our customers start telling us about the second-half of the calendar year.

Frankly, at this point we do not think we will see that until the May-June-July timeframe, so I think between now and then, we will adopt a cautious note and I think the outlook we have given you is for a very modest improvement in our business and we will see where it goes after that.

Romit Shah - Lehman Brothers

Just a follow-up, at your analyst day last year, you guys talked about wireless as a percentage of sales declining. It seems like you have been performing some sort of a balancing act since then. Are we at the point now where wireless should hold as a percentage of total sales?

Lewis Chew

I would say right now, it is probably fair to assume that because as Don pointed out, we do actually believe we have growth opportunities in wireless, as we do everywhere else. One of the things we are going to start highlighting for people is that wireless is kind of a subset of the whole portable area. We definitely think that we are very good in portable. So if I were you, I would start thinking about not just as a wireless power management guy, but that we can do lots of things in lots of portable devices and our growth initiative in that space will then power our aim more broadly than wireless.

Long Ly

With that, we are going to end the call. Let me remind you that the replay is available on our website. Thank you for joining our call today.

Operator

This concludes today’s National Semiconductor third quarter 2007 fiscal results conference call. You may now disconnect.

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