Intel created quite a stir with its swarming, multi-hued drone backdrop for the opening number of Lady Gaga’s epic Super Bowl halftime show. And CEO Brian Krzanich got tons more attention on Wednesday, promising President Donald Trump in the Oval Office that Intel would spend $7 billion to build a new plant in Arizona.
But the chipmaker isn’t likely to draw nearly as many headlines on Thursday when hordes of Wall Street analysts descend on its Silicon Valley headquarters for an annual update. With the real future of the company on the line, the news is considerably less exciting, and less clear.
Expectations are muted as CEO Brian Krzanich has already made a number of key disclosures. Along with fourth quarter earnings results, Kraznich and new CFO Bob Swan delivered their outlook for the year on January 26. Revenue will be “roughly flat” compared to 2016’s $59.4 billion as the PC market that still accounts for over half of sales will shrink again. And a target of $2.80 of adjusted earnings per share represents a 3% increase from 2016. Intel’s shares have dropped 3% since the report.
One of the most important priorities for Intel in 2017 is getting Moore’s Law back in action. The dictum, coined by Intel co-founder Gordon Moore, that the industry should be able to squeeze twice as many transistors on a chip every two years has dramatically slowed in recent years. Intel’s newest Kaby Lake processors are made at the same 14-nanometer scale as 2015’s Skylake line and the same as 2014’s fifth-generation Broadwell chips.
Originally, Kaby Lake was slated to be built at 10 nanometers, but delays perfecting the new process forced Intel to stick with the larger scale. At CES in January, Krzanich showed off a laptop running on one of the company’s upcoming 10 nm Cannonlake chips, with a vague promise to deliver the goods to customers before the end of 2017.
With a stronger chip lineup coming from competitor Advanced Micro Devices (AMD) this year, analysts would love to hear that Cannonlake is on track for an early arrival. And perhaps Krzanich has news about moving to 7nm scale chips, the standard for the new fabrication plant he promised Trump.
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Another key point for Intel (INTC) watchers is the company’s fading growth in server chips. Still dominating the market with 90% share, Intel’s sales of more expensive—and higher profit—chips for servers have risen at ever slower rates for the past few years. Once upon a time, the data center was going to lead Intel away from the shrinking PC business by growing 15% or more annually. But as Credit Suisse analyst John Pitzer noted this week, Intel has missed that growth target for the past eight quarters in a row and more than half of all quarters over the past seven years.
So it may be time for Intel to concede that the its data center group, or DCG, business will grow at a slower rate after being hurt by the shift of corporations from buying their own computers to renting use of cloud-based hardware from Amazon (AMZN) and others.
“Investors clearly expect Intel to lower the (long term) growth rate for DCG during its Analyst Day from ~15% to ~8-10%,” Pitzer wrote in his report. “We see a bias to the upper end of the 8-10% range, albeit we concede a more conservative target is better for expectation setting.”
Another area of interest could be the new modem chips Intel is making for mobile devices. After winning about half of Apple’s (AAPL) business for the iPhone 7, Intel could be poised for additional gains in the industry, especially as leading modem chip maker Qualcomm (QCOM) is embroiled in lawsuits and investigations.
After that, expect to hear more of the same spiel on all of the other businesses Intel has been looking to for growth in recent years, including everything from machine learning to self-driving cars and auto-sensing drones. But none are making a significant impact yet.
Long-time chip industry analyst Stacy Rasgon at Bernstein Research admitted in a report on Wednesday that he was having a hard time figuring out why investors should own Intel stock. To be sure, Intel shares have gained 25% over the past 12 months. But that came as the PC and memory chip markets did less bad than anticipated, not because any of the new growth areas Intel has highlighted finally blossomed.
“As far as our current thinking goes, we are struggling a bit,” Rasgon wrote.
On Thursday, it will be up to Krzanich and his team to help Rasgon and the rest of Wall Street regain some clarity, and some confidence, about the company’s future.