Intel (INTC -1.36%) is the 800-pound gorilla of semiconductor sales. No discussion about chip stocks can be complete without considering the massive shadow Intel casts over the rest of the industry.
But is Intel the best semiconductor stock to buy right now? Three Motley Fool contributors -- all of whom own Intel shares -- put their heads together and dove deeper into the semiconductor sector. Suggesting names like Sierra Wireless (SWIR), Micron Technology (MU 1.44%), and Imagination Technologies (NASDAQOTH: IGNMF) as strong Intel alternatives, they all agreed on one thing: Santa Clara might not be the best place for new money today.
Ashraf Eassa: Intel has been an incredible performer this year, with the shares hitting new multiyear highs on seemingly a daily basis. As a result of a very strong datacenter group, alongside a stabilized and highly profitable PC group, earnings this year came in better than expected, and the market has rewarded the stock with an expanded earnings multiple.
I plan to hang on to my Intel stock for the foreseeable future, but after such a great run, there may be better opportunities in the semiconductor space at this time. One semiconductor stock that I believe is worth a serious look -- albeit for those with fairly high risk tolerance -- is Imagination Technologies.
Imagination primarily provides 3D graphics designs to system-on-chip integrators such as Apple. It also, via its acquisition of the assets of MIPS Technologies, is trying to make its mark in the semiconductor CPU IP space. Now, it's no secret that ARM's (ARMH) grip on the CPU IP space is tight, and ARM's Mali graphics IP has only become more competitive over time. This has led to a significant amount of pessimism being baked into Imagination's share price.
However, Imagination announced fairly recently a new generation of graphics IP (known as Series 7), and it, frankly, looks very compelling. Not only does Imagination look poised for leadership in mobile phone/tablet graphics IP, but it has even expanded its offerings to include high-performance compute oriented GPU IP as well as "Ultra Book" class GPUs. I'm also interested to see if Imagination can really push MIPS CPU IP into various non-mobile markets such as the Internet of Things.
Near 52-week lows, and with what seems to be a robust IP portfolio, Imagination could be a very interesting stock for tech investors with a fairly high risk tolerance.
Anders Bylund: I respect Intel, believe that the company still has a bright future, and even own the stock. It's an industry titan that will stick around for decades to come, rewarding us investors with a generous dividend along the way. But I don't think it's the absolute cream of the semiconductor industry's crop. That honor belongs to Micron Technology.
Memory chip maker Micron turned over a new leaf in 2013, when the company closed the game-changing acquisition of bankrupt rival Elpida. Since then, the company holds the keys to its own future in a way that very few companies in any industry can claim.
With strong pricing power in a mostly commoditized industry, Micron has become an extremely efficient cash machine. The company boasts a 31% return on equity and 17% return on invested capital. By comparison, Intel sports an 18% return on equity and 13% return on capital. Intel's numbers are among the strongest in the semiconductor industry. Micron's command of its profit generation is downright scary.
This transformation has not gone unnoticed on Wall Street. Micron's shares have gained a market-crushing 76% over the last year, again leaving Intel's respectable 45% jump in the shade. But the stock is still cheap, trading for just eight times forward earnings (versus Intel's 15) and 12 times trailing free cash flows (Intel: 33x).
It's a hyper-efficient growth stock trading at bargain-basement prices. When it comes to recognizing Micron's true value, the market still has a lot of adjusting left to do. And that's why I think Micron is the best semiconductor stock money can buy today -- yes, even better than Intel.
Alex Planes: As an Intel shareholder, I'd love to be able to say that it will be my best-performing chip stock for the foreseeable future, but I simply can't. It's already the largest semiconductor manufacturer in the world. It's worth as much as the more diversified Samsung, and is $50 billion larger than Qualcomm.
The simple fact of its size works against Intel when it comes to long-term growth. I have no plans to sell my shares because of Intel's excellent history of dividend payouts and its proven ability to adapt to new market conditions, but I think there are bound to be better gains elsewhere in the semiconductor space.
Like Anders, I've had my eye on Micron for a while, but I think its upside may be constrained by the fact that it's already one of the largest memory-chip manufacturers on the market. Instead, I'll turn my attention to smaller upstarts, particularly Sierra Wireless, which is a still-small chipmaker (its market cap passed $1 billion just recently) that's focused its attention on the red-hot Internet of Things market, or IoT. Sierra is already a market leader in machine-to-machine embedded modules, and its recent third-quarter earnings report has all the signs of accelerating growth.
Many larger chipmakers, including Micron, would have to play all their cards perfectly to double revenue and earnings over the next several years. Sierra's investors would probably consider that a pitiful underperformance, given the fact that a number of experts believe that the IoT market could be worth $19 trillion, if not more, within the next decade or so.
Grabbing even a small slice of that highly connected pie ought to boost Sierra into the upper echelons of chipmakers by revenue, which should result in gains that resemble Intel's during the dot-com days rather than the slow-and-steady progress Intel investors have largely come to expect today.
I own shares of both companies, but I expect far more growth from Sierra Wireless.