Penny-pinching PC makers stash chips

A fierce price war between chipmakers Intel and AMD is leading PC makers to stock up on processors to be ready for an expected upsurge in orders.

The PC industry is mired in one of its worst slumps ever, but you might not know that from looking at recent numbers for chip leaders Intel and Advanced Micro Devices.

Both chipmakers posted quarterly increases in shipments of PC processors when they reported second-quarter earnings recently. And both gained in market share for the second quarter, according to a survey by Mercury Research.

Analysts credit the seemingly contradictory trends in PC and chip sales to the fierce price war that has emerged between the two chipmakers. Cost-conscious PC makers are stocking up on parts now in anticipation of an upsurge in PC sales starting in the third quarter, spurred by back-to-school buying and the coming release of Microsoft's new Windows XP operating system.

"There's an inventory disconnect between processors and PCs," said Dean McCarron, principal analyst at Mercury Research. "Fundamentally, what I think we're dealing with is a couple of things. First, we've got channel stuffing, which is people shipping product ahead of orders...and you have unintentional stuffing, which is people buying ahead."

Intel climbed from 76 percent of the PC processor market in the first quarter of 2001 to 76.7 percent in the second quarter, Mercury reported in revised numbers released on Monday. Meanwhile, AMD was up slightly from 22.1 percent in the first quarter to 22.2 in the second quarter, the firm said.

Some of the market share gains came at the expense of competitors in the "other" PC processor category, including Transmeta and Via Technologies' Cyrix III chip.

But AMD and Intel also managed to ship more PC processors in the second quarter. AMD told analysts during its post-earnings conference call that it shipped 400,000 more chips in the second quarter than the first, increasing to 7.7 million units. Intel said its shipments were up by about 1 million units for the quarter, a jump of about 6 percent.

Many of the extra chips likely went to PC makers, who took advantage of the low prices offered towards the end of the second quarter to stock up for an anticipated upswing in demand in the third quarter. The two chipmakers have been involved in a heated price war this year, slashing to help push sales and gain market share.

The rest went to resellers, where the companies likely engaged in some degree of "channel stuffing," the practice of shipping products to distributors ahead of orders placed for them.

A company can deliberately stuff the channel to improve its sales results for a quarter. But the practice is also carried out in legitimate anticipation of increased demand for finished products.

PC makers were more active in buying chips in June after spending the earlier part of the second quarter clearing out inventory, said Loren Loverde, director of researcher at IDC's PC Tracker program. "Assuming that Intel sold more of its processors in the last month of the quarter, it's concieveable that vendors were buying for third-quarter production after reducing inventory in the second quarter," Loverde said.

Such stocking up is necessary because, "Processors aren't PCs," McCarron said. "A processor goes into a pipeline about six weeks before a PC comes out."

It's when demand falls off, such as it did late last year and early this year, that the practice becomes a problem.

Who's to say it's a problem now? The gray market, where processors are re-sold by PC makers and large distributors to smaller retailers, is always a good indication.

"A classic sign of (channel stuffing) is when prices on the spot market drop significantly," McCarron said.

Here, stuffing shows up when one company's products cost significantly less than the other's or when that company's products show up for far less than its list price on the gray market, suggesting a supply glut.

Certain versions of AMD's Duron processor, such as the 800MHz, show up for sale on sites such as Pricewatch.com at about half the price of Intel's 800MHz Celeron. The Duron 800MHz chip was listed on PriceWatch on Monday afternoon starting at US$35, while Intel's 800MHz Celeron was listed at US$63 and up. The lower price of the 800MHz Duron suggests there are probably many more of the AMD chips available now than 800MHz Celerons.

AMD, for its part, negotiates its prices individually with each large customer, while Intel is said to follow a more regimented pricing system, dropping prices at set points through a chips' lifespan.

However, spot prices for both AMD and Intel processors have become stable in recent weeks, according to analysts, including Merrill Lynch's Joe Osha.

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