During the recent two years, limited increase in production capacity and challenges related to technology migration have slowed down the growth of DRAM supply, according to DRAMeXchange, a division of TrendForce. Contract prices of DRAM products began to climb in the second half of 2016, particularly driven by the strong demand in the year-end busy season. The DRAM market since then has continued to see surging prices. However, there are reports that Samsung is considering expanding its production capacity to increase competition and raise the barrier for market entry. Thus, there is a possibility that the tight supply for DRAM may end sooner than originally anticipated.
“The average contract price of mainstream 4GB DDR4 PC DRAM modules, for example, has soared from US$13 at the end of second quarter of 2016 to the current US$30.5 in the fourth quarter of 2017,” said Avril Wu, research director of DRAMeXchange. “This represents an increase of 130% over six consecutive quarters.”
Profits of major DRAM suppliers have also expanded significantly on account of the booming market. Currently, the top supplier Samsung has an operating margin of 59%, while operating margins of SK Hynix and Micron are also impressive, respectively at 54% and 44%. The outlook for the fourth quarter of 2017 can be summed up as higher contract prices and higher profits.
Samsung’s capacity expansion plan intends to raise barrier against potential market entrants
With the DRAM market being an oligopoly, the three dominant suppliers theoretically would want to maintain the status quo as to maximize their profits. Nonetheless, SK Hynix and Micron are now flushed with cash after benefitting from several quarters of rising prices, and they are also in a great position to improve their competitiveness. SK Hynix is now transitioning to the 18nm node and will be building its second fab in the Chinese city of Wuxi next year. Meanwhile, with the cash and resources at hand, SK Hynix will be able to proceed with its plans smoothly and on schedule. As for Micron, its rising stock price has given the company an opportunity to pursue capital increase by cash. This signals that Micron is preparing to build new fabs, expand production capacity or upgrade its manufacturing technology. The gains made by SK Hynix and Micron as well as their recent activities are unlikely to have escape Samsung’s notice. Therefore, Samsung may in response expand its DRAM production capacity to main its lead in the market.
Capacity building on the surface is about alleviating the current tight supply situation but the underlying motive behind such a move is to keep prices from going up further. If Samsung chooses this strategy, the short-term effect will be an increase in depreciation cost that will also erode the profitability of its DRAM business. However, Samsung’s ultimate goal to ensure its long-term dominance in the market in terms of having an enormous production capacity and being ahead of its competitors’ technologies by one to two years.
Additionally, China’s memory industry continues to take shape and is expected to enter its formative stage of development in 2018. To forestall Chinese DRAM and NAND Flash makers from catching up significantly, Samsung could raise its production capacities for these products and engage in aggressive pricing. Potential market entrants will not be able to expand their production capacities and improve their technologies on schedule if they are under heavy financial pressure.
Projected bit supply growth in the global DRAM market for 2018 has been raised to 22.5% as Micron and SK Hynix may follow Samsung in capacity expansion
DRAMeXchange reports that Samsung is considering raising its DRAM production by altering the plan for its new Pyeongtaek facility and expanding the capacity of its Line 17 fab. A part of the second floor of the Pyeongtaek facility may be set aside for fabricating DRAM wafers rather than NAND Flash wafers as originally intended. It would also be probable that DRAM production at the Pyeongtaek facility will be wholly on the 18nm process. As for Line 17, there is still some space for further capacity expansion.
If Samsung follows through with the aforementioned plans, its DRAM output for the entire 2018 is forecast to increase by 80,000 to 100,000 wafers. Under the same scenario, Samsung’s total DRAM production capacity would also shoot up from 390,000 wafers per month at the end of 2017 to nearly 500,000 wafers per month by the end of 2018. In terms of annual bit supply growth for 2018, DRAMeXchange originally forecast Samsung’s at 18%. However, the annual growth rate for next year could go up to 23% if Samsung carries out capacity expansion.
Taking Samsung’s plans into account, the annual bit supply growth in the global DRAM market for 2018 could reach 22.5%, which is noticeably higher compared with the estimated rate of 19.5% for 2017. This also suggests that the supply gap may be filled next year. Furthermore, SK Hynix and Micron will likely to follow Samsung’s initiative and expand their capacities to maintain their market shares. The activities from the three major suppliers will add new variables into the market.
DRAMeXchange’s latest analysis finds that Samsung’s capacity expansion plans, while could bring relief to the current tight supply situation, are mainly about checking the runaway profit growths of competitors. With supply increasing, profitability of suppliers will return to their usual levels. Furthermore, the NAND Flash market will likely see a milder oversupply situation than initially expected for next year if major memory makers focus more of their investments on DRAM production. In this case, the slide in the average selling price of NAND Flash may also become more moderate. Thus, Samsung’s capacity building could impact DRAM market in 2018, but it might not be negative to the long-term development of the industry as a whole.