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StockBeat: STMicro Nudges the Chipmaker Rally Onward

By Geoffrey Smith -- The momentum behind the recovery of the global chipmaker sector built a little more on Thursday as French-based STMicroelectronics, one of Europe’s largest chipmakers, posted a much brighter fourth-quarter result than forecast.

That comes hot on the heels of Taiwan Semiconductor's (NYSE:TSM) rousing update last week, which expressed confidence in the outlook for 2020. It also provides an upbeat prologue to Intel’s fourth-quarter update which is due after the closing bell on Thursday.

STMicro was guarded about its outlook, saying that it expected quarter-on-quarter declines in both revenue and gross margin in the first three months of this year. Nor did it give any guidance for the full year ahead. However, the market didn’t seem to care, and pushed the stock up 7.1% by 5:10 AM ET (1010 GMT), easily the best performer on the Paris exchange. The benchmark STOXX 600 was down 0.2 at 422.42.

Like many U.S. chip stocks, STMicro has had an excellent run over the last 12 months as the cycle has appeared to turn. It has been the best-performing stock in the CAC 40 in that time, rising 98%, surpassing even Bernard Arnault’s LVMH (PA:LVMH). (LVMH, like other luxury stocks on Thursday, underperformed with a 1.0% drop amid rising fears that the coronavirus will hit sales in China this year).

As analyst Haris Anwar points out, World Semiconductor Trade Statistics, an industry group that monitors the sector, predicts the chip market will rebound from last year's decline to 6% growth this year. And while issues like global trade and the U.S. elections pose risks to the whole market, there are few megatrends as powerful as the demand for chips that is coming as a result of the upgrade to 5G technology worldwide.

That said, STMicro, like its German rival Infineon Technologies (DE:IFXGn), has pockets of weakness, notably in its reliance on sales to an auto industry that has lost momentum worldwide. The group’s Automotive and Discrete division saw sales fall 4.5% last year, and also posted the weakest rebound of STMicro’s three units in the fourth quarter, rising only 3.3%. (By contrast, the sensors division grew revenues by over 12%.)

The number of chips in the cars of the future may still be expected to rise, but the buzz around autonomous mobility, which underlay many of the most bullish scenarios for the growth in chip sales in recent years, has cooled off drastically in the last year after high-profile accidents involving Tesla’s Autopilot feature and Uber’s self-driving taxi experiments.

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