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Qualcomm may consider breaking up the business

July 21, 2015, 1:06 PM UTC
General Views of Qualcomm
Photograph by Konrad Fiedler — Bloomberg/Getty Images

Communications chip company Qualcomm is preparing to announce a review of its operations at its Wednesday financial results call. The review could lead to a breakup, returning more cash to shareholders or some other form of restructuring and would be a direct result of activist investor Jana Partners LLC pushing Qualcomm to take action, according to a story in the Wall Street Journal.

Jana disclosed more than $2 billion in holdings in Qualcomm back in April and has since made its presence felt with the chip firm. Qualcomm has responded to Jana’s pressure with a $50 billion share buyback program and a review of its cost structure that it is expected to discuss on tomorrow’s results call. However, the hope is that Qualcomm will do more.

For years, Qualcomm has been pressured to split its patent royalty business and its chip design business into two separate entities. Qualcomm owns a variety of valuable patents associated with mobile technology including the rights to the CDMA wireless technology that’s still used by many cell phones sold inside the U.S. It also has a variety of LTE patents. For others in the industry, paying Qualcomm royalties on patents that it also used in its own chip designs (which you also had to pay to license) was a tough sell.

Now, with Chinese, European and South Korean regulators investigating Qualcomm for antitrust violations it may make sense for the company to institute a break up to avoid further investigations and to appease its investors. There’s also the potential for shareholder returns given the appetite for consolidation in the chip industry that’s ongoing. Intel purchased Altera in a $16.7 billion deal while NXP should soon close a deal for Freescale Semiconductor valued at $11.8 billion. Avago is buying Broadcom for $37 billion. Qualcomm is also doing its own deals, snapping up CSR, a Bluetooth chip maker for $2.5 billion.

And given the way the chip market is heading, I personally believe that Qualcomm needs to buy a microcontroller company, so would look for it to purchase Atmel or another stand alone MCU vendor with a large customer base if it wants to get serious about the internet of things. I wonder how Jana would feel about that.

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