Why Qualcomm Lagged the Stock Market in 2013

Shares of semiconductor powerhouse Qualcomm (NASDAQ: QCOM  ) underperformed the broad market indexes as we head toward the conclusion of what's been an outstanding year for stocks in general.

QCOM Chart

QCOM data by YCharts.

Investors certainly never want to see their holdings lag the market in any given period as Qualcomm did this year. However, put in the context of the market's historic returns, Qualcomm's performance this year isn't exactly chopped liver, either.

So as we prepare to close the books on another action-packed year, let's revisit the key storylines that shaped Qualcomm's performance in 2013.

Making it in mobile
Qualcomm's technologies and chips are at the heart of the mobile revolution. And as the overall market for smartphones and tablets increased in 2013, so did Qualcomm's earnings, to a large degree. Here's a brief snapshot of Qualcomm's three quarterly reports versus their prior year thus far in 2013.

Qualcomm Quarterly Results* 

Q2 2013

Q3 2013

Q4 2013

Sales Growth (YOY)

23.9% 

35% 

33.1% 

Profit Growth (YOY)

(16.3%)

30.9%

18.1%

Sources: Cap IQ, Qualcomm. *In QCOM's reporting, FT Q2 equals CY Q1.

Overall, these are fantastic numbers. So what's held Qualcomm back so much?

One problem has been the relatively gloomy (at least by Qualcomm standards) outlook. During the company's most recent annual report, the chip giant guided its fiscal year 2014 sales between $26 billion and $27.5 billion. This is problematic for two reasons. First, and less important for long-term investors, Qualcomm's guidance came in lighter than the average analyst estimate. More seriously, the middle point of its revenue estimates would represent a paltry 8% of year-over-year growth for Qualcomm as the downshift to lower-cost devices, which typically run lower-cost chipsets, hurt Qualcomm's sales mix. 

That said, Qualcomm still sees its sales and profits growing at double-digit rates over the next five years, so this could just be a blip in the grand scheme of things. 

Qualcomm doubles down on Snapdragon
Part of the reason that Qualcomm expects such impressive results over the long term is that it's consistently been able to keep its Snapdragon line of mobile processors at the leading edge of the mobile boom.

During 2013, Qualcomm notched wins at the high and low ends of its product portfolio. In June, Qualcomm announced its Snapdragon 800 processor would be used to power the first LTE-Advanced smartphone, a version of Samsung's popular Galaxy S4. In November, Qualcomm announced an updated Snapdragon 805 chip that would be able to power Ultra HD-quality graphics.

Perhaps more important, Qualcomm introduced the updated Snapdragon 410 chip aimed at the low-end handsets that are driving the bulk of smartphone growth today. The chip features 4G LTE integration and is 64-bit capable. This adds yet another strong offering for Qualcomm for the sub-$150 handsets, and positions it strongly to benefit from this growing area. 

However, there were many storylines that affected Qualcomm aside from new products this year.

Not so fast, Microsoft
Succession was a major storyline for Qualcomm in 2013.

Steve Mollenkopf. Source: Qualcomm.

Earlier this month, Qualcomm announced it would promote longtime executive Steve Mollenkopf to be its next CEO, replacing current CEO Paul Jacobs in a unanimous vote by Qualcomm's board. With the promotion, Mollenkopf will also join Qualcomm's board, while Jacobs will assume the oversight role of executive chairman. 

Qualcomm made the move in order to retain one of its key executives, as Mollenkopf's name had surfaced repeatedly as a potential successor to outgoing Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer. Qualcomm's move leaves Microsoft still blowing in the wind, but maintains much of the executive leadership that has helped double Qualcomm's sales since 2010.

At the end of the day, although it underperformed the market, Qualcomm still made many of the right moves to position itself for continued success in 2013. And as the world's largest semiconductor company by market cap heads into 2014, investors should regard it with a sense of cautious optimism. Because despite some possible short-term headwinds, Qualcomm should still hold plenty of opportunity ahead of it, especially for long-term investors.

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