Analysts skeptical of AMD outsourcing plan

AMD wants to save money by outsourcing its chip manufacturing, but some analysts are skeptical.

Advanced Micro Devices's move to cut overhead costs by outsourcing its chip manufacturing business may backfire in the long run, according to several analysts who have downgraded the company's stock.

AMD is struggling it keep its head above water after posting losses of US$611 million and US$574 million for its past two quarters. The company has also drawn criticism for its manufacturing, with recent reports that it will delay the full-volume launch of the "Barcelona" quad-core Opteron server chip from July to October.

That would hobble AMD in its effort to compete with surging rival Intel. Although AMD's Opteron has won over many users of Intel's Xeon server chips since its launch in 2003, that trend is now in a sharp reversal, according to a June 13 report from Jon Peddie Research. In the market for workstation processors, AMD had pushed Intel's share down to 87.6 percent in the first quarter of 2006, but Intel has rebounded since then, reaching 92 percent share in the first quarter of 2007.

The building pressure recently prompted some analysts to predict that AMD might stop manufacturing any chips at all and convert to a fully outsourced business model as soon as 2008. AMD said that rumor had come from a "speculative" Goldman Sachs report, but confirmed that the company is trying to focus its efforts on developing chips instead of manufacturing them, according to AMD spokesman Drew Prarie.

AMD currently has a deal giving it access to IBM's chip fabrication plant in East Fishkill, New York. Under that arrangement, AMD can perform much of its research and development without having to incur the cost of owning its own manufacturing plant, he said.

"We're looking to find ways to extend that model beyond research and development to the full range of the manufacturing supply chain," Prarie said Monday. "That could run the range from increasing the amount of processors we send out for chartered manufacturing, and could also include things like establishing partnerships on the manufacturing side."

AMD has already taken some steps in this direction. In 2006, AMD announced a plan to give Chartered Semiconductor Manufacturing a heavier load, asking the firm to begin making the new 65-nanometer scale Athlon chips and other processors. And in May, AMD announced that it had awarded the job of manufacturing its newest graphics chips to Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Co. (TSMC).

Now the company may be preparing to expand that model, according to a June 17 report from Citigroup analyst Glen Yeung. AMD is on the verge of making a "transformational move" such as outsourcing a larger share of low-end processors to TSMC, selling a share of the manufacturing capacity in its Fab 30 chip-making plant in Dresden, Germany, or even selling a share in its planned US$3.2 billion chip plant in Saratoga County, New York, Yeung wrote.

Despite AMD's insistence that such an arrangement would simply allow it to stay in the chip business while cutting costs, the uncertainty makes Wall Street analysts nervous.

The Citigroup report lowered its estimate of AMD's future revenue from US$1.3 billion to US$1.1 billion for the second quarter, and from US$5.8 billion to US$5.6 billion for the full year of 2007. Those figures would represent a flat performance compared to AMD's performance last year, with US$1.22 billion of revenue in the second quarter of 2006 and US$5.6 billion for the full year.

"We are again lowering AMD estimates, this time for 2Q07 (we had previously lowered 2H07), reflecting our field checks suggesting current conditions are weak," Yeung wrote. While Citigroup recognizes that AMD could be moving away from its own manufacturing and that could help the company cut costs, "we remain on hold for the shares given near-term weakness," he wrote.

In contrast, Yeung said Intel would continue to enjoy a competitive advantage thanks to the potential delay of AMD's Barcelona chips, rising popularity of Intel's new Santa Rosa notebook platform, and continued sales of Core-family chips for desktop PCs.

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