All the Chips Are Down -- Place Your Bets!

It's no fun owning semiconductor stocks today. One industry analyst decided to downgrade 10 of the 14 stocks he follows, and every single stock he touched got a much worse haircut than the rest of the market did, even on a bad day for Wall Street in general.

The semiconductor sector has already seen the top of its recent cyclical upturn, says Banc of America analyst Sumit Dhanda in a research note. He's marking down Intel (Nasdaq: INTC  ) from a buy to a hold, and archrival AMD (NYSE: AMD  ) from hold to sell. Other downgrades in Dhanda's book today include Texas Instruments (NYSE: TXN  ) , LSI (NYSE: LSI  ) , and National Semiconductor (NYSE: NSM  ) . All of these stocks have fallen 4% or more as of this writing and erased billions of dollars in semiconductor market caps.

The reason for the broad brush stroke is worsening macroeconomics, though each company gets a touch of personal spice on top. For AMD, it's the costs of its heavy debt load plus concerns that the Barcelona chip might not be the garlic-rubbed silver cross the company needed. On the other side of that mythical showdown, Intel is running out of costs to cut and processes to optimize.

I think Dhanda is painting way too dark a picture, though. For one thing, if this is the top of the semiconductor industry's cyclical upswing, it was the shortest hike I've seen. As recently as last summer, we were still listening to Texas Instruments and Broadcom (Nasdaq: BRCM  ) as they prayed for the related mobile-gadget industry to get healthy again. It did, just in time for the holiday season's inventory buildup. And now it's over?

And Microsoft's (Nasdaq: MSFT  ) Windows Vista platform was supposed to form another foundation from which the processor designers could launch an offensive. That took a bit longer than expected, and Mr. Softy himself has gotten credit for that turnaround only in the past three months or so. And, again, now it's over?

Color me unconvinced. If the global economy crashes hard, that's one thing. Not much a chip maker could do about that. But it hasn't happened yet, and even a full-on American disaster wouldn't put too much of a hurting on wireless and computer sales elsewhere. So unless you think 2008 is going to be like 1929, maybe it's time to dig into a spate of heavily discounted chip companies. They're all on sale, and for no good reason.

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