Samsung’s future is more Intel, less Apple

October 7, 2015

The author is a Reuters Breakingviews columnist. The opinions expressed are her own.

Samsung Electronics may be Apple’s archrival, but the South Korean giant is looking more and more like chipmaker Intel. While smartphone sales are sliding, Samsung’s chip business is powering its bottom line. Future growth may depend more on components than on competing with the iPhone.

Though the $154 billion tech conglomerate is still the world’s largest handset maker, it is struggling for growth. Samsung is expected to sell just 75 million units of its flagship Galaxy model this year, down from 107 million two years ago, estimates BNP Paribas. Margins have also taken a hit: operating profit for handsets and tablets in the second quarter of this year was less than half the figure for the same period of 2013.

Yet the high-margin semiconductor business is more than making up for the shortfall. Selling memory chips to rivals – including Apple – is likely to boost operating profit at the semiconductor division to 13.6 trillion won ($11.7 billion) this year, more than half the company’s total, estimate analysts at Maybank Kim Eng.

Growing demand for chips and thin-film displays is probably the main reason that Samsung now expects operating profit to have reached 7.3 trillion won ($6.3 billion) in the third quarter – the first quarterly year-on-year increase since 2013.

To get a sense of scale, compare Samsung’s semiconductor operations with Intel. The U.S. chipmaker is forecast to earn $10.5 billion in this year. After applying Samsung’s 16 percent corporate tax rate, its chip division is likely to bring in net income of slightly less than $10 billion.

On the same forward earnings multiple as Intel, the semiconductor business alone would be worth about $139 billion. That’s more value than investors currently attach to the whole group, after deducting its $48 billion net cash pile. In this analysis, Samsung’s handset and consumer electronics business are thrown in for free.

The South Korean group’s sheer size relative to its home stock market means it has long suffered a discount. Comparing different chipmakers can be tricky. And semiconductors remain a highly cyclical business. But when it comes to judging Samsung’s future performance, Intel may be better benchmark than Apple.

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