Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Qualcomm's 4G gambit in China could be big

SAN FRANCISCO -- Bullish bets on Qualcomm, the No. 1 U.S. supplier of smartphone-chip technology, may depend on more than just the timing of China's transition to more sophisticated wireless networks.

They could also hinge on an investigation of the San Diego-based company by a key government agency in that country.

China is in the middle of a major leap forward in infrastructure, to so-called 4G wireless networks that take full advantage of the latest smartphone features.

That's helped stoke bullishness in Qualcomm shares, which have outperformed the Nasdaq over the last six months.

Chinese consumers are expected to buy 420 million smartphones this year, up 27% from 330 million in 2013, according to a March note from the stock research firm Wedge Partners.

The share of 4G phones in that county over the next the two years is expected to soar, to 61% of the market, from 39% this year, the firm says.

Yet China Mobile, the No. 1 wireless company in the world's largest smartphone market, sold just 1 million iPhones in February, significantly less than Wall Street expected, according to the latest note from the research firm.

That makes expectations among Apple analysts of about 3 million to 5 million iPhones sold to China Mobile in the first quarter look too high by about one-third to one-half.

Coming on the heels of Apple's first-quarter forecast, which missed estimates by a wide margin when it was issued in January, the latest data affirm that the 4G opportunity in China this year won't come until the second half.

That may cause an inventory buildup at Apple and other makers of 4G handsets in the first half, something investors may hear about during the coming tech earnings season.

According to Qualcomm's regulatory filings, the company had just over $12 billion in China sales for the fiscal year ended last September, or nearly half the company's total.

John Shinal, technology columnist for USA TODAY.(Photo: USA TODAY)

Analysts expect sales for this fiscal year to rise 8% to $27 billion.

Qualcomm licenses its technology to more than 100 companies in China, or about 40% of its global total of 250 licensees, Qualcomm President Derek Aberle said during a March 18 interview.

That's why Qualcomm investors betting on growth in China should keep an eye for news of any discussions the company is having with China's National Development and Reform Commission.

That economic-planning agency launched a probe into Qualcomm last year that was first reported in January.

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The inquiry sounds at least as serious as the public scrutiny of Apple in late 2012 by other agencies within the Chinese government.

That scrutiny led to an apology from Apple CEO Tim Cook early last year over the company's warranty policies, about the same time Apple's revenue growth in that country went negative for six months.

The reform commission has the power to levy steep fines if it finds Qualcomm ran afoul of China's laws or regulations, including what it considers any anti-trust violations.

Aberle in an interview declined to comment on any possible Qualcomm communication with the Chinese authorities, saying only that the company's goal related to the inquiry was to demonstrate the value its wireless technology will bring to that nation.

"We hope that things will work out as best as they can," Aberle said.

Qualcomm bulls should be hoping for the same.

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