The past few months have been rough ones for Micron Technology (NASDAQ:MU) shareholders; miserable, in fact, with MU stock now down 55% from its late-May peak. Worse, there’s no end to the selloff is in sight.
A computer memory glut is the crux of the problem, of course. But, a broad malaise within the technology sector led by once-popular FANG stocks has also proven problematic.
For perspective, the iShares Dow Jones US Technology ETF (NYSEARCA:IYW) has fallen nearly 25% since its August high, paving a bearish path for Micron stock to follow.
And it’s certainly been more than willing to follow that path.
The thing is, it’s not as if the company hasn’t been in this situation before, only to swing out of it right around the time matters looked the grimmest. It’s unlikely this time around will prove much different.
Translation: You may want to go ahead and put MU stock on your watchlist, even if you’re not quite ready to buy it today.
We’ve Been Here Before
All things are cyclical. It’s possibly one of the toughest (if not the toughest) lessons investors have to learn.
One doesn’t have to look too far back in time to recognize this reality. Indeed, the current glut is the third time just since 2011 Micron has had to face this headwind, with the company more than rebounding from both of the previous instances.
Think all the way back to 2011. That’s around the time AllThingsD’s Arik Hesseldahl summed up the problem succinctly by explaining:
“The stockpile of DRAM chips as of the end of the third quarter of 2011 stood at 12.8 weeks, which is nearly a third higher than it had been three months earlier and double what it was in early 2010. It’s also a lot higher than the typical average of 9.2 weeks.”
There was a noteworthy nuance of that particular round of excess production. Back then, tablets (which don’t require as much RAM as notebooks and desktops) had just become the preferred connection solution. Also, there had been no new operating system from Microsoft (NASDAQ:MSFT) since Windows 7 launched in late 2009.
Memory needs were already being met adequately where laptops and PCs were being used.
Between early 2011 and late 2012, MU stock lost roughly 55% of its value.
It wasn’t weakness that was meant to last though. By late-2014, the stock was up more than 500% from the glut-driven low, with the supply overhang vanishing in the latter part of 2012.
Late-2014, by the way, was when the next RAM glut started to take shape, though the full impact of that excess capacity wasn’t fully realized until 2015.
In some ways it was the same as any other glut, marked by too much supply and not enough demand. Not only were tablets and smartphones still crimping sales of new computers, but the August-2012 launch of Windows 8 had effectively prompted all of the computer upgrades it was going to be able to prompt.
From its late-2014 peak to its mid-2016 low, MU stock lost more than 70% of its value.
That glut also wouldn’t last forever though. By June of this year, on recovering PC sales (stemming from the introduction of Windows 10) as well as cooling demand for handheld consumer technologies, Micron stock had once again gained more than 500% from its 2016 glut-driven low.
And then, yes, the cycle started over. Too much capacity and outright overproduction started to sink its teeth into Micron’s bottom line just a quarter ago, as had been the case twice before since 2011.
Bottom Line for MU Stock
But this time is different? There’s no new Windows operating system in the near-term queue and sales of both tablets and computers are stabilizing at less-than-impressive levels.
Both of those concerns are legitimate, but for the record, there were similarly legitimate concerns in 2011 and in 2016 as well. The basis of a turnaround is never clear until after the fact. Microsoft may well be working on its next-generation operating system. PC sales could end up accelerating in 2019.
Most plausibly, however, it’s going to be data center demand, and AI-driven demand in particular, that steers the RAM industry’s key players like Micron, Kingston and SK Hynix and out of the red and back into the black.
J.P. Morgan analyst Harlan Sur was likely on target at the time when he explained, “[We] expect Micron to benefit from a long runway of AI growth (and from solid cloud data center demand in general),” adding “Broader data center already accounts for roughly a third of Micron’s revenues and with the growth of data center, including AI, we see the portion continuing to rise.”
His timing was admittedly unfortunate, in that he reiterated his bullish call in late October, right before another wave of weakness from MU stock. But the point stands.
Though the timing of the turn is still in question, what’s not in question is the fact that the stage is set for a recovery. Like the last couple of times, it’s unlikely many will see it’s actually happening until well after it’s taken shape.
As of this writing, James Brumley did not hold a position in any of the aforementioned securities. You can follow him on Twitter, at @jbrumley.