In a bid to survive on the market of dynamic random access memory, Elpida Memory, which has to pay over $1.4 billion in April, 2012, the company may try to merge with its rivals. A possible combination will include Elpida, Micron and Toshiba, which has all chances to become the largest DRAM makers in the world, according to DRAMeXchange, a division of TrendForce.
Heading into the end of 2011, Elpida’s financial difficulties were revealed. Rumors abounded, not only of Elpida seeking a bailout from the Japanese government, but also of Toshiba stepping up to take over. If this rumor is true, Elpida will be the first maker to fall in the harsh DRAM winter.
Currently, Elpida’s cash is down to ¥110 billion, approximately $1.429 billion, but the company’s total debt amounts to around $6.26 billion, 60% of Elpida’s total assets. ¥37.4 billion (approximately $486 million) of Elpida’s total debt comes from the Japanese government’s recapitalization program and must be repaid by the end of April 2012. In the face of this pressing deadline, Elpida has no choice but to look elsewhere for funds, which has fueled industry speculation of a merger or acquisition.
Integration Necessary for DRAM Industry to become Oligopolistic and Return to Profitability
Amidst numerous conjectures about Elpida’s possible integration, the Japanese government plays an important role. In addition to possibly extending repayment of Elpida’s loan, the government is actively involved in integration prospects. Besides potential government intervention, there is also a chance that Elpida’s longtime strategic partners Kingston and Powertech Technology (PTI) will offer assistance.
Since the second half of 2011 there has been frequent news of Kingston purchasing Elpida chips at discounted prices, hoping to help Elpida make it through the DRAM price downturn by decreasing the company’s losses somewhat.
Market rumors also hinted that Nanya was willing to cooperate with Elpida. This rumor was immediately and firmly denied by both parties, and upon analysis it appears that there is little truth to the supposition. From Nanya’s perspective, their current debt ratio is a high 96.8%. Although the company has received continuous financial support from industry giant Formosa Plastics, at this point in time it is highly unlikely Nanya would leave partner Micron to cooperate with Elpida. Furthermore, in terms of cost considerations neither Elpida nor Nanya is in a position to endure the technology integration period that would be necessary after merging. Lastly, as Nanya and Elpida have filed patent infringement lawsuits against each other, there is little possibility of a strategic alliance between the two.
As Elpida’s options are limited when it comes to integration partners, the Japanese government is eager to help negotiate a partnership between Toshiba and Elpida, in hopes of developing an operational strategy that will further reduce the proportion of commodity DRAM wafer starts. Furthermore, the government also hopes for integration of DRAM and NAND product lines, in order to target the smartphone and tablet PC markets as major Korean makers have done. Furthermore, there is also the possibility of U.S.-Japan cooperation, with the goal of going up against Korean makers. Such an alliance would not only enable makers to solidify DRAM and NAND product lines and break into the mobile DRAM market, but Elpida and Micron’s combined wafer start capacity would be 328K starts per month, surpassing that of number two Korean maker Hynix. From an economic perspective, teaming up would help keep costs down.
According to TrendForce, currently the market has entered the traditional down season. Although, DRAM total wafer start volume has already decreased by over 20% since the beginning of 2011, a portion of DRAM capacity must be cut indefinitely if the DRAM industry is to achieve balanced supply and demand. This is the only method for the industry to achieve sustained growth and become an oligopolistic market.
Currently, other than Korean maker Samsung who possesses nearly 50% market share, DRAM makers are all in the red. Taiwanese manufacturers are suffering the most, with enormous net loss figures. Nanya’s debt ratio is nearing 100%, while Powerchip’s is around 80%, with clear need of an extension on imminently due loans. In terms of Micron, debt ratio is lower than 30% as the company’s NAND flash remains profitable. Thus, it is unlikely they will be part of a merger. Micron’s subsidiary company Inotera is relatively stable in comparison to other Taiwanese makers, with the ability to solicit capital on their own – Micron subsidiary, Dutch Numonyx is part of private fundraising plans set by Inotera in December 2011. Taking the above factors into account, the most likely company that would be part of a merger is Elpida, and the DRAM industry is sure to see major changes in 2012.
DRAM Market to Gradually Head towards Oligopolistic Status, Price Slashing History Unlikely to Recur
According to TrendForce, the current DRAM industry is still a competitive market. As profitability is achieved in the DRAM industry by using capacity and technology migration to keep single chip cost down, as soon as market demand growth slows, oversupply is difficult to reverse. From the market perspective, impacted by the rise of mobile products, the time for high PC yearly shipment volume has long gone. The only way to increase profitability is to cut more DRAM capacity, and increase the proportion of mobile DRAM shipments.
Before the market becomes an oligopoly, speculation of mergers and acquisitions will be endless, and the longer the industry remains in the red, fewer makers will be able to participate in such actions as they slowly lose grounds for negotiation. However, with successful integration and an oligopolistic market, DRAM profitability will still be possible, and the surviving manufacturers will be able to live on as the industry fulfills its long-term goal of healthy operation.