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Samsung Fails to Deliver the Expected Sunshine

Tim Culpan

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- Samsung Electronics Co.’s earnings report and outlook reflect doom and gloom. Many are surprised. Positive signs from chip rival Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Co. and smartphone stalwart Apple Inc. had fed the belief that the South Korean giant would put the worst behind it. 

The key takeaway here is that a rising tide doesn’t lift all boats.

On the surface, as the one of the world’s biggest technology companies, it might be reasonable to suggest that Samsung ought to benefit from the turnaround enjoyed by major rivals.  

In reality, a major reason why Samsung is suffering while others rebound is that the company’s big strengths — memory chips and displays — are precisely the weakest parts of the tech sector right now.

Its semiconductor unit posted a 56% drop in operating income for the period and its display business fell 77%. Between them, these component divisions usually contribute half to two-thirds of its profit. TSMC, Intel Corp. and even Advanced Micro Devices Inc. don’t dabble in such commodity products. When things are good in memory and displays, Samsung soars because it’s the world’s largest supplier of both. But when times are bad, like now, it suffers the most. 

That pain will continue in both divisions this quarter, with executives noting in a conference call that continued weakness in demand will hurt both revenue and profits.

Bulls will find positive signs if they want. The memory chip market will surely improve as the year progresses, but heck, it couldn’t get much worse. And the whole world — from TSMC to Intel to Xiaomi Corp. — is betting that a 5G rollout will juice sales across the board. 

Just because TSMC, Apple and Intel reported solid results and gave optimistic outlooks doesn’t mean that every company in the sector is set to benefit from a turnaround in hardware. AMD, Intel’s chief competitor in computer chips, provided guidance just a day earlier that could be characterized as a bit light. Its shares fell 6%, their largest decline since August.

Samsung’s 1.5% miss on net income was a break from the previous two quarters, when it surpassed analyst estimates. We already knew sales and operating figures from preliminary results provided earlier this month that hinted that things had reached a bottom and pointed to positive signs ahead. Operating income fell 34%, but was better than estimates, which makes this weak net profit figure confounding.

The only division that didn’t share the pain is smartphones, a sandbox that Apple also plays in. Operating profit from that division climbed 67% from a year prior. But Samsung noted that the figure will remain only “steady” this quarter since an expected revenue boost from new models, including a foldable handset, will be offset by higher marketing costs. 

In the end, it may be best to look at reality. Samsung has chosen a strategy that allows it to dominate a select part of the tech industry. Unfortunately, that means feeling the most pain when such a bet doesn’t pay off.

To contact the author of this story: Tim Culpan at tculpan1@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Patrick McDowell at pmcdowell10@bloomberg.net

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Tim Culpan is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering technology. He previously covered technology for Bloomberg News.

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