Fears that the earthquake in Taiwan could interrupt the flow of computer chips and other high-tech components to U.S. manufacturers triggered a broad sell-off in technology stocks yesterday, as analysts worried that a slowdown might damage bottom lines ahead of upcoming earnings reports.
Concern focused on the semiconductor industry. Taiwan produces roughly 10 percent of the world's finished semiconductors, analysts say. Some industries--particularly communications and graphics--are particularly dependent on chips produced there.
Reports yesterday suggested that Taiwan's two primary chip factories, Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Corp. and United Microelectronics Corp., suffered no structural damage. But the quake did force emergency shutdowns there and at most factories in the Hsinchu area, a center of high-tech manufacturing. Even after power resumes, analysts said, factories will need to adjust machinery and run safety tests.
That prompted worries that as much as two weeks of production could be lost, though analysts stressed that, even in the worst-case scenario, the impact on earnings is not likely to be great.
Even so, the market hammered the semiconductor sector. Galileo Technology, a chipmaker that relies exclusively on Taiwan for its products, according to Merrill Lynch & Co., lost $3.06 1/4 to close at $29.81 1/4. Altera, which sells chips used in communications networks and relies on Taiwan for 85 percent of its product, lost $2.75 to close at $50.12 1/2. The company said yesterday the earthquake would not affect its earnings.
But the market was equally vengeful toward a host of companies that rely little or not at all on Taiwan's production. Texas Instruments, which takes no production from the island, lost $1.62 1/2 to close at $86.87 1/2. Advanced Micro Devices, another such company, lost 81 1/4 cents to close at $18.50.
"It's basically the whole semiconductor set that's being hit today," said Eric Rothdeutsch, vice president for global semiconductor research at Merrill Lynch in New York. "It's irrational."
The hurt was not confined to the realm of chips. A host of big-name technology stocks with little or no Taiwan exposure were caught in the sell, among them Intel Corp., which slipped $2.06 1/4, to $82. The tech-heavy Nasdaq composite index dropped 65.05 to close at 2821.10, a loss of more than 2 percent.
Some suggested the broad downturn, while perhaps an overreaction, was also a valid reflection of the continued trend toward globalization. Taiwan is home to many factories that perform the unglamorous but critical tasks of fashioning "motherboards," the circuits that run personal computers. The earthquake seems certain to slow that process as well.
Thus, even if a U.S. chipmaker is unaffected by the earthquake, the computer manufacturer to which the chipmaker sells a product may suffer a slowdown because of a shortage of motherboards.
"Now, the electronics industry is very global," said Mona Eraiba, senior vice president of research on electronic semiconductors at Gruntal & Co. in New York. "You don't know where every piece comes from, but it's all interrelated. It triggers a snowball effect."
But Eraiba emphasized that all indications suggest factories will be running normally in short order, as power is restored. The sell-off reflects the timing of the quake more than its likely impact on earnings, she said, noting that the quake happened near the end of the fiscal quarter, as companies are tidying up their balance sheets.