After an epic rally from 2019 to 2021, shares of mobility chip giant Qualcomm (QCOM 3.36%) haven't done so well lately. Following yet another sell-off in the market (thanks, inflation), Qualcomm stock is again near its 52-week lows and off over 30% from its all-time high last year.
This is now the third time in a year Qualcomm has fallen to this level -- and this time, it's trading for a meager 11 times trailing-12-month earnings per share. With the company gearing up for a push into new markets, this is another chance to load up on this top chip stock on the cheap.
All eyes are on the smartphone market, but should they be?
The reason Qualcomm is getting punished again has to do with the smartphone industry. After a good two-year run fueled by consumer spending early in the pandemic and an initial wave of 5G-enabled phones, global smartphone sales are hitting a snag. Qualcomm still expects its revenue to rise anyway, by virtue of the fact its content per phone is still increasing thanks to 5G. Plus, its Internet of Things (IoT) and automotive segments are in growth mode right now, too.
Qualcomm has a lot of new developments in the works, though, like personal computing chips, virtual reality processors, and even data center and server hardware. As for this latter end market, rumors in recent weeks suggest that Qualcomm could be plotting a return to the cloud (it exited the data center market about four years ago), utilizing designs from ARM by way of its acquisition of start-up Nuvia last year. In fact, Amazon's (AMZN 0.83%) cloud computing segment, AWS, has expressed interest in testing Qualcomm's new offerings.
The data center and server market is huge, and it could be an ideal time to take a swing at it. Long-standing leader in this space Intel (INTC 1.79%) has been ceding market share to AMD (AMD 5.25%) and Nvidia (NVDA 4.00%) for years, and even Intel's CEO has admitted it will likely continue to lose market share for the next couple of years. So, why not Qualcomm, too, if there's low-hanging fruit to be had in cloud infrastructure and compute chips?
But the question is: Will it work? There's a chance it could. Qualcomm's bread-and-butter chips for smartphones are a fantastic marvel of engineering. They're powerful, but also ultracompact, energy efficient, and purpose designed for a mobile-connected world. If this same technology could be expanded to also encompass data centers, personal computers, and the like, Qualcomm could go from smartphone specialist to everything-computing generalist.
All of this is to say the market overall is hyperfocused on the immediate-term outlook for Qualcomm's smartphone sales, but it's missing the forest for the trees. There's a lot more to the company than in the past, and it's laying the groundwork for many more years of expansion. Thus, another chance to buy again near 52-week lows after the brutal selling in recent weeks could be a wonderful long-term gift to investors.
But what about the free cash flow?
Of course, using earnings per share, Qualcomm stock looks dirt cheap. However, on a free cash flow basis, shares trade for a far higher 23 times enterprise value to free cash flow. What gives?
Free cash flow can be lumpy, not just from quarter to quarter, but even year to year. Why? New chip development costs money, often requiring ample sums of up-front cash before sales start trickling in. And that's exactly what Qualcomm is up to these days. Its innovation engine has been revving up and could be about to pay off big time in the next year or two, as the spending weighing down free cash flow right now starts to yield results.
All of this hinges on whether Qualcomm's developments for laptops, VR, data centers, and autos do in fact win over customers. But with so many irons in the fire and a proven lineup of chip technology, I like the company's chances at expanding beyond smartphones in at least one -- if not multiple -- new directions. I believe the market keeps selling Qualcomm's long-term prospects short. If you haven't bought yet, this most recent sell-off looks like a fantastic buying opportunity.