Qualcomm, Inc. (NASDAQ:QCOM) stock continues to struggle. QCOM stock has fallen 19% year to date and trades not far from a 52-week low.
I continue to believe that it will get worse for Qualcomm before it gets better. The lawsuit with Apple Inc. (NASDAQ:AAPL) garners the headlines, but is only a small part of Qualcomm’s regulatory and legal trouble. Qualcomm’s very business model is at stake, and the news so far hasn’t been good.
Meanwhile, there isn’t enough good news elsewhere to offset that risk. Even though QCOM stock looks cheap, it’s one of the most dangerous stocks in large-cap tech.
Regulatory Problems Continue For Qualcomm
It’s worth pointing out that concerns toward QCOM stock didn’t suddenly start in January, when Apple filed its lawsuit, and QCOM stock fell 14% on the news. Qualcomm stock peaked in the first half of 2014, above $80. The day before the Apple suit was announced, it closed at $62 – down over 20% from those all-time highs.
And legal pressure didn’t magically appear, either. Qualcomm already had paid antitrust fines in China and Korea. Just three days before the Apple news, the U.S. FTC charged the company with monopolization in baseband processor devices. The argument from Apple that Qualcomm is unfairly charging royalties isn’t new, and it isn’t unique.
Indeed, that argument seems to be coming into wider favor. As InvestorPlace columnist Brad Moon discussed, an industry consortium has entered the fray on Apple’s side. It also criticized Qualcomm’s attempt to block imports of iPhones that use a modem made by Intel Corporation (NASDAQ:INTC). And a second unnamed supplier – which one analyst has suggested is Huawei – has begun to withhold payments as well.
Qualcomm’s problems aren’t just a matter of a couple billion in potential damages, or a broken relationship with Apple. Its licensing model looks more questionable by the day. And the problem for QCOM stock is that there isn’t nearly enough good news to offset that pressure.
QCOM Stock Doesn’t Have a Driver
After all, it’s the licensing business – what Qualcomm calls QTL – that drove roughly 80% of total profit, at least until Apple started withholding payments. The QCT business is growing, coming off 5% growth in Q3 and projected to improve sales and margins in fiscal Q4. But it’s simply not enough to offset a big step-down in the licensing business.
Meanwhile, it’s not as if Qualcomm can simply restart growth if its licensing business takes a hit. Bear in mind that in fiscal 2016 – before the Apple imbroglio – Qualcomm’s revenue fell 7%, and its non-GAAP net income declined 13%. Both sales and profits declined in FY15 as well.
There’s a reason QCOM stock was struggling in 2015 and 2016. And Apple aside, I’m not sure the news gets much better. Smartphone growth in developed markets is trending toward zero, and Qualcomm doesn’t have nearly as large a presence among lower-cost Chinese manufacturers.
Qualcomm does have the pending acquisition of NXP Semiconductors NV (NASDAQ:NXPI) to diversify its business, most notably into automotive applications. But that’s a $38 billion deal against a current $78 billion market cap for QCOM stock.
And competition will be heavy, with Intel, Nvidia Corporation (NASDAQ:NVDA) and a host of other chipmakers targeting the same space. Even if that deal is successful, it likely doesn’t fix Qualcomm’s problems in its legacy business. And if QCOM’s high-margin licensing revenue declines sharply, NXP isn’t going to be enough to offset it.
Qualcomm Stock Remains Expensive
With all those challenges, it’s not as if QCOM stock is dirt cheap. Even looking at FY16 non-GAAP EPS of $4.44, and adding a likely $1.50 contribution from NXPI (based on analyst estimates for that company on its own), QCOM’s normalized earnings are about $6 per share. That’s a 9x multiple – before the ongoing impact of supplier withholding.
That’s a multiple assigned a declining business – but Qualcomm looks like a declining business, even disregarding the potential threat to its model. But those threats are very real, and they can’t be disregarded. And that’s bad news for QCOM stock.
As of this writing, Vince Martin did not hold a position in any of the aforementioned securities.