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Why the chip stocks are down

Semiconductor stocks have significantly underperformed the market for five years, even though worldwide chip sales have seen double-digit growth during that period. Here's why.

A colleague recently asked if I knew why semiconductor stocks significantly underperformed the market over the past five years, even though chip sales have seen double-digit growth during the same period. Being a veteran of the industry, I surprised both of us by not knowing the answer. So I decided to find out.

First, the facts. The PHLX semiconductor sector index (SOX) declined at a rate of 2.9 percent per year over the past five years, while Merrill Lynch's semiconductor index exchange-traded fund (SMH) declined 1.0 percent per year.

The Nasdaq, on the other hand, experienced a 4.8 percent compound annual growth rate (CAGR) during the same period. Likewise, the Dow and S&P 500 respectively grew 3.7 percent and 3.9 percent annually.

Indeed, the semiconductor sector has significantly underperformed the broad market.

Steve Tobak

This is in stark contrast to worldwide chip sales. According to market analyst firm iSuppli, worldwide semiconductor sales grew from $181 billion in 2003 to $270 billion in 2007, a CAGR of 10.5 percent. The same firm expects worldwide chip sales to grow to $291 billion in 2008.

So what's going on? Why the continued long-term downward trend in share prices in the face of solid industry growth?

For one thing, the chip sector is far from homogeneous. For example, the current memory chip glut has weighed heavily on the entire sector, since memories account for more than 20 percent of the total semiconductor market.

Also, the above indices exclude Samsung, Toshiba, and a host of other top manufacturers that aren't listed on U.S. exchanges. That said, some of those firms are knee-deep in memory chips, so I'm not sure they would positively impact the indices.

Perhaps the best way to understand the gap is to look at individual companies' stocks. The included chart shows a five-year compound annual rate of growth or decline for the biggest United States-traded semiconductor stocks.

Not surprisingly, Qualcomm, whose business includes licensing its wireless technology, was the standout gainer. Marvell, Broadcom, Nvidia, and Texas Instruments--manufacturers of proprietary products used in high-growth segments--also showed reasonable annual gains that bucked the sector trend.

The big losers included memory chipmakers Micron and Infineon, as well as broad-line supplier STMicroelectronics and, of course, Advanced Micro Devices.

The chart demonstrates that the law of supply and demand has not abandoned the semiconductor market. Proprietary products in hot markets resist negative sector trends, while commodities suffer the most.

Lastly, I can't help but wonder if the effects of the dot-com bust are still in play here. The dot-com misnomer hides the fact that investors suffered big-time when the bubble burst on enormously inflated chip stocks such as AMCC, PMC-Sierra, and yes, even mighty Intel. You know what they say: once bitten, twice shy.

In summary, I think that chips will remain a stock picker's market for some time to come. I wouldn't be at all surprised if it takes a long, long time for broad investor confidence to return to this once high-flying sector.

Disclosure: I don't own shares in any of the stocks named in this post.