"That was then, this is now" is an oft-repeated adage directly applicable to investors seeking new opportunities. The old saying takes on special meaning at this time of year as shareholders look back at their portfolio's performance as a first step in determining what to expect in 2015. After a banner 2014, Intel (NASDAQ:INTC) shareholders have much to consider heading into the new year.
As Intel's share price hovers at or near its 52-week high, it's not surprising that some investors would consider taking their gains and looking for other opportunities. Up about 43% in 2014, the chipmaker has finally given long-suffering shareholders something to cheer about. That's the good news. The really good news is that Intel's stellar share price performance isn't due to rumors or momentum. There are instead fundamental reasons for its strong run, and it doesn't appear those will change heading into 2015.
The long, winding road
When Brian Krzanich was named CEO in May 2013, more than a few Intel fans breathed a sigh of relief. Outgoing CEO Paul Otellini, by his own admission, was slow in moving Intel into the 21st century world of mobile and cloud computing, something Krzanich addressed, figuratively speaking, within moments of taking on his new assignment.
Krzanich's plan was to move "even faster into ultra-mobility, to lead Intel into the next era." That sounded good at the time, but it came back to bite Krzanich and Intel shareholders. The problem? Intel's mobile efforts, particularly when compared to industry leader Qualcomm (NASDAQ:QCOM), have performed less than spectacularly, and investors paid the price.
With close to two-thirds of the cellular chip market, Qualcomm is the undisputed king. Couple Qualcomm's dominant market position with a tepid tablet market, and Intel faced an uphill battle in the hyper-competitive mobile industry from day one. But things began to change, for Intel and its shareholders as it became clear all of the company's eggs weren't in one, mobile basket.
Krzanich has not tossed in the mobile chip towel, nor should he. But Intel does not need to knock Qualcomm off its mobile perch to perform up to investors' standards, as the best third quarter in the company's storied history attests. And investors are likely to see more of the same when Intel announces fourth-quarter results on Jan 15.
The road ahead
What became apparent in 2014 was that Intel is primarily a data server and PC market solutions provider, and that should remain the case heading into the new year. Of Intel's $14.6 billion in revenue last quarter -- an 8% improvement over Q3 2013 -- a whopping $9.2 billion came from the PC group. Until recently, that would have been viewed negatively; after all, PCs are dead, right? Turns out, PC's aren't going away. In fact, the market is stabilizing, which is how Intel was able to grow its Q3 PC-related revenue 9% over the previous year.
Intel's other key division, its data center group, really hit its stride in the third quarter, boosting revenue by 16% to $3.7 billion. The impetus for Intel's strong data center growth has been, and will remain in 2015, the cloud. While companies such as Microsoft and IBM battle over cloud-delivered services, Intel is a dominant player in cloud storage and data-related solutions, aka data centers.
As revenues from the cloud continue to explode -- IDC predicted spending would reach $56.6 billion in 2014, and climb to over $127 billion in 2018 -- Intel has positioned itself as the data center provider of choice. The company is also positioned well in the high-end, custom chip solutions many of today's cloud providers are demanding. The price of PC chips dropped 4% in 2014, but data center chip prices jumped 10% compared to 2013. It's no wonder Intel's gross margin last quarter improved to 65% from 62.4% in 2013's third quarter.
Throw in $530 million in revenue last quarter -- a 14% improvement compared to the same period of 2013 -- in another exploding market, the Internet of Things, and it's easy to see why more than half the analysts covering Intel have a "strong buy" rating on the company. Short interest -- investors betting on a share price decline -- has dropped over 14% the last several weeks, despite Intel bumping up against 52-week highs. That is another indication industry pundits aren't expecting Intel's share price to pull back.
The day before Krzanich was named CEO barely a year and a half ago, Intel's stock price sat at a dismal $23.99 share. Patient shareholders have been rewarded, and then some in 2014, with the stock closing Dec. 30 at $36.79. And there's no reason to think 2015 will be any different. As for Intel's dividend yield of 2.42%? That's just icing on the cake.