Think of the big tech megatrends today -- big data processing, cloud computing, 5G connectivity, self-driving cars, and the Internet of Things -- what do they all have in common? All require the core components of computing, and that means memory.
There are, generally speaking, two types of memory -- fast memory, which stores and processes data with a power source (RAM), and memory that stores data when power is turned off (hard disk drives and NAND Flash).
While memory is an indispensable part of computing, with a 2017 total addressable market of $150 billion, it 's traditionally been a violently cyclical business, with prices fluctuating based on constantly moving supply and demand. Yet over the last decade, the memory industry has consolidated to just a handful of players, while demand has exploded and diversified thanks to those aforementioned tech trends.
This could make the industry less cyclical than the past, which means there might be a good opportunity in memory stocks. Here are three picks -- Micron (NASDAQ: MU), Western Digital (NASDAQ: WDC), and Intel (NASDAQ: INTC) -- to consider for your portfolio today.
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Micron is one of only three main DRAM manufacturers in the world and one of five NAND flash producers. The company also has a joint venture with Intel making a new memory technology called 3D Xpoint, which is nonvolatile like NAND, but also faster and more expensive (though not as fast or expensive as DRAM).
If you're going to invest in Micron, you really have to believe in the future of DRAM, which made up 71% of Micron's revenue in its most recent quarter.
DRAM prices have soared in recent years, as demand from data centers, edge computing, the Internet of Things, smart cars, advanced gaming, and crypto-mining has supplemented its traditional PC and mobile businesses. Still, there's considerable debate as to how sustainable today's pricing is. That's why Micron trades at only at 5.5 times forward earnings, and analysts have price targets ranging from $35 to $101 per share. I happen to think DRAM prices aren't going to fall as much as others do, and with its stock just over $50 today, I like Micron's chances.
Western Digital's portfolio covers nonvolatile memory, including hard disk drives (HDD) and NAND Flash (via its 2016 SanDisk acquisition). While hard disk drives are thought to be "old" technology, they're still the cheapest form of storage. Moreover, Western Digital has pioneered a new form of HDD technology called microwave-assisted magnetic recording (MAMR) for commercial use, which should greatly expand densities and thus keep HDDs relevant for years to come. At the same time, Western Digital's flash division is also taking advantage of the memory boom and is a hedge in case NAND flash begins to displace HDDs sooner than others think. Western Digital can thus allocate between HDDs and NAND as needed going forward, de-risking the company.
Western Digital is also facing skepticism on pricing and trades at a bargain-bin valuation of 6.4 times forward earnings. That makes Western Digital also an intriguing value play today.
Intel is a far more diversified player than Micron or Western Digital -- its nonvolatile memory solutions segment only made up $3.5 billion of its $62.7 billion in 2017 revenue. Nevertheless, that segment's revenue grew 36% in 2017 and is poised for further growth in 2018.
Intel makes NAND flash memory, which it incorporates in its own servers and processors, as well as those of others, and has also teamed up with Micron on 3D Xpoint, which it's packaging into a new integrated platform called Optane. While Intel used to produce NAND in a joint venture with Micron, the companies recently decided to go their separate ways on NAND, though they still have their 3D Xpoint collaboration.
Intel's memory business has not been profitable each of the past two years, but since Intel uses its own memory in higher-value packaged products, it's not as big of a deal. Also, as both 3D Xpoint and NAND volumes ramp, Intel expects its memory segment to be profitable in 2018.
By investing in Intel, you not only gain exposure to the upside in NAND and the disruptive potential of 3D Xpoint, but also its dominant PC-centered CPU business, as well as a host of other technologies, including field-programmable gate arrays (which came by way of the 2015 Altera acquisition), self-driving cars (via the company's 2017 Mobileye acquisition), the Internet of Things, and 5G modems.
Intel would be the pick if you're looking for a less risky and more diversified company, plus it pays a solid 2.2% dividend.