How Long Will the Chip Boom Last?

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Don't tell an executive at a major chipmaker that we're still in the middle of a recession. The way his industry is booming, he might just laugh at you.

Spend a little time scouring tech news sites, and you'll probably find at least a story or two showing how semiconductor demand is soaring across multiple industries. Here are some recent examples:

  • Applied Materials (Nasdaq: AMAT  ) , the world's biggest chip equipment manufacturer, raised its 2010 revenue growth guidance to 60% last week, following a strong earnings report. The company's silicon unit, which focuses specifically on semiconductor manufacturing equipment, is expected to see 120% growth.
  • Research firm Semico is now estimating that DRAM industry revenues will be up a stunning 70% in 2010, thanks to a combination of strong PC demand and rising prices. Meanwhile, Taiwanese site Digitimes reported that PC manufacturers such as Dell (Nasdaq: DELL  ) and Sony have been avidly buying up DRAM supplies "in order to beat an anticipated shortage."
  • Toshiba announced that it would move forward with building a new NAND flash memory plant, after postponing construction during the recession. Toshiba's move can be taken as a sign of rising sales for NAND manufacturers in general, who are having trouble keeping up with demand from smartphone vendors. But it's especially a positive sign for Toshiba's manufacturing partner, SanDisk (Nasdaq: SNDK  ) .
  • Chip news site EETimes, citing analyst reports,mentioned how analog chip companies such as Texas Instruments (NYSE: TXN  ) , Intersil (Nasdaq: ISIL  ) , and Linear Technology (Nasdaq: LLTC  ) are likely to deliver earnings ahead of street estimates, with surging demand leading to supply shortages and higher lead times for product deliveries.
  • Likewise, research firm iSuppli sees a shortage of LED chips developing, thanks to the growing sales of LCD TVs with LED backlighting. That's good news for LED chipmaker Cree (Nasdaq: CREE  ) -- Cree's chips are more likely to be used for lighting applications than LCD backlighting. But an industry shortage still spells higher prices.

This semiconductor boom, like all of the ones before it, isn't meant to last. Eventually, slowing customer demand and higher capacity will bring about lower shipments and declining prices. That's just how this cyclical industry works. And certainly, reports of soaring lead times and chip buyers trying to gobble up supplies should raise investors' concerns about industry overheating.

If you see multiple chip companies begin talking about declining lead times, or see several of them report a jump in the accounts receivable line on their balance sheets (a possible sign that customers have bought more chips than they need, and will end up returning some of them), you might be looking at early indications that the party is coming to an end.

But for now, at least, the good times are rolling. And until they stop, chip stocks should keep outperforming the broader market.

Think chip stocks will keep moving higher? Or that they're due for a fall? Feel free to comment below.

Fool contributor Eric Jhonsa has no position in any of the companies mentioned. Linear Technology is a Motley Fool Stock Advisor choice. Try any of our Foolish newsletters today, free for 30 days. The Fool has this global disclosure policy.

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