Divergent effects of COVID-19 pandemic on tech and telecom companies
Remote work, home sheltering, store closures, supply-chain disruptions, and declining ad expenditures among largest drivers
June 12, 2020 | Ari Bensinger, Director
The coronavirus pandemic is affecting the revenue streams of technology and telecommunications companies in divergent ways, leading some to adopt new business models.
While COVID-19 adds a layer of uncertainty over the short- and medium-term outlook of many tech and telecom companies, secular trends for the overall sector remain favorable in the long term. We see rapidly rising wireline (cable-based) and wireless data traffic—as well as growing demand for semiconductors for use in electronic goods—as strong underlying growth drivers.
The beneficiaries of remote work, remote learning, and home sheltering
The need for remote work and learning capabilities has fueled substantial growth in the use of Internet servers, cloud-based applications, online communication tools, and telecommunication infrastructure. This trend has benefited manufacturers, developers, and providers of related hardware, software and services, including data-center companies that operate and manage server hubs; developers of videoconferencing, online collaboration and messaging applications; and telecom companies.
Telecom services, in particular, are indispensable for businesses and individuals during this time, and they have made the sector highly resilient. At the same time, more usage demands more network capacity, which may require additional capital expenditures by telecom companies to augment their infrastructure in order to maintain service quality—whether in cellular phone service or broadband speed. These expenditures may be offset in the longer run by price increases, or by higher revenue from consumer migration to costlier service plans that cover more data consumption, usage time and faster connections.
We have seen that home sheltering and lockdowns have favored e-commerce companies, which have experienced considerable growth by offering online alternatives to buying and selling goods in lieu of brick-and-mortal retail.
Other effects on hardware manufacturers
The pandemic has impacted a range of hardware technology producers:
Smartphones: Makers of smartphones have been hardest hit in terms of revenue as a result of store closures and shelter-in-place orders. To cope with these developments, some manufacturers have adopted self-service models, which empower customers with the independence of using online options for purchasing and activating phones, obtaining tools and information regarding product usage, and troubleshooting technical problems.
We believe that the first quarter of this year marked the bottom point of the smartphone downturn, though we expect weak demand to persist through the second quarter. Yet we also foresee the majority of lost shipment volume being pushed to subsequent quarters with the help of pent-up demand that could begin to show toward the end of 2020. Of note, MUFG anticipates limited impact on the demand for smartphone devices that are compatible with the fifth-generation (5G) technology standard for cellular networks, which should see demand ramp up during the second half of 2020.
According to our tentative forecast, smartphone demand will decline by 6% overall in 2020, though demand visibility for the rest of the year is poor, since market recovery depends on the easing of various sheltering restrictions worldwide, whose timing is unknown. For now, we anticipate consumers’ preferences to lean toward more affordable devices, which could hurt the higher end of the smartphone market.
Personal computers (PCs): In the near term, MUFG expects the PC market to rebound from supply-chain disruptions earlier in the year with the help of greater demand fueled by remote work and learning. But we believe long-term demand remains at risk, since businesses and consumers may curb planned PC upgrades amid a softening economic climate. Overall, the team foresees PC shipments declining by 4% in 2020 and believes the industry will continue to consolidate as its largest players gain more market share.
Servers: We see the rapid increase in network traffic from heightened broadband activity during shelter-at-home requirements providing a notable boost to server demand. In our view, original design manufacturers (ODMs, or white-box suppliers), which design and make servers for rebranding and resale by other companies, are the primary beneficiaries of demand for so-called “hyperscale server computing” (i.e., the ability to scale up servers as network usage increases). “Providers of cloud-based computing prefer low-cost servers over more expensive industry brands, since they buy and use them on a wholesale basis.” MUFG foresees 8% growth in server demand for 2020.
Semiconductors: Demand for semiconductors has fallen because of the slump in demand for semiconductor-intensive products—such as smartphones and autos—in the wake of COVID-19. Yet the increased use of semiconductors as the building blocks of consumer electronics, home appliances and durable goods across the board should be a positive factor boosting growth in the sector over the longer run.
From TVs to cameras, from washing machines and refrigerators to LED bulbs—semiconductors are becoming ubiquitous. While we predict sales to decline by 4% in 2020, we view the downturn as temporary and expect a strong rebound in semiconductor demand by 2021.
We see a major discrepancy this year between the demand for semiconductors in the memory (or storage) segment of the computing market, which is expected to grow in the mid- to high-single digits—and the non-memory segment, which is undergoing an almost double-digit decline.
The effect on Internet companies
Internet companies that derive their main income from advertising have been negatively affected by the pandemic. Four of the largest online advertisers include the retail, auto, travel and, entertainment industries—and all of them took a hit in consumer demand that has squeezed their ad budgets. This setback has, in turn, led to declining ad revenue among Internet companies such as search engines and social-media networks, as well as sites and mobile-app developers that publish crowd-sourced reviews about businesses and operate online reservation services.
We believe that some of the largest Internet companies are diversified enough to withstand the downturn in ad revenue, and perhaps even thrive by offering other services, but that the knock‑on effect of declining ad expenditures is felt across the board.