This article was originally published at RealMoney on October 17, 2007.
Last month I showed how investors can generate investment ideas by using the Producer Price Index (PPI) report prepared monthly by the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The idea is that industries where prices are rising may contain companies where revenue will grow faster and/or margins will improve.
Of course, like any initial screen the PPI report is only a starting place. It is useful to generate ideas, but further research is needed to determine whether they are good ideas. This month, I do some of that further research.
In the technology sector, prices almost never go up. But sometimes they decline at a slower rate than normal, which tends to have the same effect on sales growth and profit margins.
Last month I noted that the year/year price declines for computer storage devices were the lowest they had ever been. Although pricing ticked down in September from that level, it is still one of the strongest readings on record.
Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics
There are plenty of ways to play this one, including Brocade (BRCD), EMC (EMC - Annual Report), Iomega (IOM), Hutchinson (HTCH), Quantum (QTM), SanDisk (SNDK - Annual Report), Seagate (STX - Annual Report) and Western Digital (WDC). It will require a closer look to see which ones seem like the best bets.
Brocade beat earnings estimates last quarter, and although they said the industry remains competitive the competition didn’t seem to be hurting pricing. On their conference call, Brocade noted that “From a pricing perspective, the pricing environment for the past several quarters has been more favorable than historical levels. While we believe ASP declines may eventually return to mid single-digits per quarter, as competitors ramp their new product offerings, our current outlook is for a relatively benign pricing environment in Q4, with ASP declines once again in the low single-digits.”
The competitive environment for storage continues to be mitigated by consolidation. Brocade bought McData, Seagate bought Maxtor and EVault, and Quantum’s purchase of Advanced Digital Information Corp. has since been followed by the Western Digital/Komag merger.
The buzz around EMC has almost entirely been around its holdings of VMWare (VMW), but that is far from all the company has to offer. Compared with the second quarter of 2006, EMC systems revenue increased 18% year-over-year, led by strong revenue growth from the company’s mid-range information storage products. EMC systems revenue represented 43% of total second-quarter revenue. However, on the conference call management said the pricing environment has always been competitive and that they “don’t see any significant sea change here in the pricing environment.”
Iomega saw 46% year/year revenue growth and an increase in gross margins from 16.7% last year to 20.5% this year. That would seem to support the pricing power hypothesis but nobody seemed to notice much. Although the stock rallied ahead of that report it has gone nowhere since.
Hutchinson is one of the disk drive industry’s top suppliers. They actually bucked tech industry norms and raised prices. “Overall average selling price in the fiscal 2007 third quarter was $0.80, compared with $0.79 in the preceding quarter and $0.84 in the fiscal 2006 third quarter. The increase in average selling price compared with the preceding quarter resulted from a higher percentage of newer products in the fiscal 2007 third quarter sales mix. “We expect our average selling price to be flat to slightly up over the next year as our sales mix continues to shift to a higher percentage of newer products,” said [CEO Wayne] Fortun.” How’s that for evidence supporting the PPI report? You wouldn’t guess it from the way the stock has acted over the last year.
Quantum’s GAAP gross margin rate was 31.8 percent, a significant increase over the 27.9 percent rate in the same quarter last year and its best performance in three years. Seagate also beat estimates.
Western Digital raised guidance, and gives credit to improved pricing power. “Western Digital also said its gross margin should hit 17.5%, rebounding from lows in previous quarters and above its prior estimate of 15.5%. The change reflects firmer pricing power after years of price wars with Seagate and Asian rivals like Hitachi.”
The only company that didn’t confirm the PPI result was SanDisk, which operates in a different segment of the storage market. Sandisk’s average price per megabyte sold declined 65% on a year-over-year basis and 26% sequentially.
Other than SanDisk, however, the ideas generated from the PPI report seem very fruitful. Depending on whether you like small caps, large caps, value, momentum or low price strategies there is likely a storage name for you.