Hello, Mr. Chips

Tech geek that I am, you'd think I would know that there's more to the semiconductor business than Intel (Nasdaq: INTC  ) and rival Advanced Micro Devices (NYSE: AMD  ) . Alas, you'd be wrong.

The sad truth is that I've paid zero attention to Freescale Semiconductor (NYSE: FSL  ) , the former microprocessor business unit of Motorola (NYSE: MOT  ) . How. Incredibly. Stupid. Why, you ask? First, look at this chart. Second, look at this earnings report. For the first quarter of 2006, Freescale reported sales and earnings that rose 6% and 150% year over year, respectively.

That's an unusually wide gulf, I know. Blame margins. Freescale dramatically improved all of them. Net margin, for example, was up 8%. But even that's conservative, because last year's net income wasn't adjusted for options expense on the earnings report. A check of the relevant filing with the Securities and Exchange Commission (PDF file) shows that adjusted net earnings were $67 million in Q1 2005, resulting in a bottom-line margin of 4.64%. Compare that with this year's Q1 total of 13.89%, and Freescale improved 9.25% on an apples-to-apples basis. Nice.

Of course, the story doesn't end there. Freescale says it bought back 3.8 million shares during the quarter for roughly $100 million, or an average of roughly $26.30 per stub. That's a good sign, too.

You see, Freescale's stock currently trades for 18.6 times 2006 earnings estimates (on a normalized basis, per Capital IQ), while normalized per-stub income is expected to jump 27%. That leads me to believe that Freescale's stock is at worst fairly priced, and at best really cheap. Whichever ends up being the truth, one thing is clear: Management has invested capital where, at the moment, there is a reasonable chance for good returns. That's important for a notoriously cyclical business like Freescale. In fact, investors would be hard-pressed to ask for more.

So there, Freescale. You've got my attention. I just hope your next act is as good as this one.

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Fool contributorTim Beyersprefers the spicy salsa with his chips. Tim didn't own shares in any of the companies listed in this story at the time of publication. You can find out which stocks he owns by checking Tim's Foolprofile. Intel is aMotley Fool Inside Valuepick, while FormFactor is aMotley Fool Hidden Gemspick. The Motley Fool has an ironcladdisclosure policy.


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