Memory market shows signs of recovery

After a nerve-rattling year, the market for memory chips is looking better in 2002.

Michael Kanellos
Michael Kanellos Staff Writer, CNET News.com
Michael Kanellos is editor at large at CNET News.com, where he covers hardware, research and development, start-ups and the tech industry overseas.
5 min read
Following one of its most harrowing years ever, the memory market should be more stable this year and allow big manufacturers to eke out a profit.

Industry consolidation, product diversity and changes in the customer base and other factors should result in fairly stable prices for the memory that goes into PCs and servers, according to memory executives and analysts.

Prices have been rising since November and could boost industry revenue from approximately $11.2 billion in 2001 to between $16 billion and $21 billion this year, according to various estimates. Although many industry executives and analysts expect the pace of price increases to slow, they also don't expect the market to go into a tailspin like last year.

"There is a lot of comfort for the year being healthy, partly because of the supply situation," said Tom Quinn, vice president of marketing at Samsung Electronics, which produces approximately 21 percent of the world's memory. "It sure feels a lot better than last year, so far."

Memory prices right now reflect the sense of optimism. Currently, a 128Mb chip of SDRAM, the most common form of memory on the market today, goes for $4.09 in the spot market and is rising, according to figures from Thomas Weisel Partners. In August, the same chip sold for $1.50.

Meanwhile, manufacturers are finding ready markets for DDR DRAM, a faster version of SDRAM now gaining popularity. Once considered too expensive, DDR began to drop in price last summer, making it more attractive to PC manufacturers and causing volumes to pick up. Now both volume shipments and prices are rising, a beneficial confluence of forces for memory makers.

DRAM pricing chart "Up until now, the price of memory was below cost," said Farhad Tabrizi, vice president of worldwide marketing at Hynix Semiconductor. "Now it is at the level where DRAM manufacturers can enjoy some profit."

Optimism, though, is a relative commodity when it comes to the memory business. Because of the large number of suppliers, the rapid evolution of manufacturing efficiency, and the fluid nature of the worldwide markets, prices and supplies are in constant flux.

In early 2000, executives and analysts predicted shortages and higher prices, but a sudden decline in PC sales in August 2000 kicked off a historic downward spiral. From October 2000 to March 2001, prices dropped by about 75 percent. And instead of hitting a floor, they dropped another 60 percent, forcing some to sell products for below cost.

"The thing that drives the DRAM market is FUD: fear, uncertainty and doubt. And we have more FUD today than ever before," Andrew Norwood, an analyst at Gartner, wrote in an e-mail.

"Moving pricing from $1 for 128Mb to $5 was relatively easy for PC guys to accept," Norwood wrote, "as they knew that the DRAM companies were making big losses. At $5, most people should be making money, so the DRAM vendors are going to get a lot more push-back as they try to raise pricing higher."

Reasons for rebound
Part of the sea change comes from the fact that excess factory capacity is finally getting soaked up. Japan's Fujitsu and a series of smaller Taiwanese manufacturers exited the market for PC memory or curtailed production in recent months. Toshiba sold its U.S. DRAM facilities to Micron Technology in December, which could further curb production, some sources said. Hynix, the world's third largest manufacturer, is trying to sell facilities too.

"There has been capacity that has come off-line," Micron Technology spokesman Sean Mahoney said.

Bit production, the number of memory cells produced worldwide, may only increase 40 percent to 45 percent this year, to 4.2 billion to 4.5 billion bits. Demand, though, is expected to grow by 55 percent.

"The supply side is fixed," Quinn said. "If (further) consolidation happens, supply will be constrained. Otherwise, we will see 40 percent to 45 percent bit growth."

The motives of manufacturers have changed as well. In 2001, some manufacturers appeared to be dropping prices to gain market share or other advantages, said Jim Sogas, vice president of sales for Elpida. Now the pressure has abated.

The growing popularity of DDR DRAM is also buoying optimism as manufacturers can charge more for it than standard SDRAM. Although the memory had been featured in PCs containing Advanced Micro Devices' Athlon processors, manufacturing DDR remained a fringe business until last December when Intel released a chipset, the 845, that allowed PC makers to match Pentium 4 chips with the faster memory.

The 845 proved to be a tidal wave. PC makers and motherboard manufacturers began to stock up on DDR DRAM, driving the price of DDR up rapidly. In reaction, prices began to climb on SDRAM. Customers began to worry that too much factory space would be shifted to DDR, so they bulked up on SDRAM. In December, Samsung managed to raise prices on large orders to PC manufacturers, Quinn said. It was a symbolic rise, but was followed by subsequent hikes from Samsung and others.

DDR popularity isn't expected to abate, either. In 2001, the memory accounted for less than 5 percent of Samsung's output. In 2002, it will account for 35 percent to 40 percent, while Rambus output will drop to 10 percent from 20 percent to 25 percent. Manufacturers are also working on faster versions, called DDR 2 and DDR 3, according to documents from Elpida.

Finally, PC makers helped buoy prices by cramming their computers with unprecedented amounts of memory during what proved to be a fairly healthy holiday season.

"We saw notebooks shipping with 1GB of memory," Tabrizi recalled. "The introduction of Windows XP also helped," as the new OS requires more memory than its predecessors to run smoothly.

However, manufacturers can easily start putting less memory in these boxes if the price continues to rise. When memory exceeds 8 percent of component costs, PC makers generally cut back, Quinn said.

Indeed, Emachines' senior vice president of marketing, Bob Davidson, said the budget PC maker is already cutting back on memory because customers don't place a high value on it. When they are buying PCs, they notice that memory is cheap and refuse to pay extra for it. Instead, Emachines is looking at increasing hard drive sizes, another cheap upgrade but one consumers will pay for.