By Cate Cadell and Ju-min Park
BEIJING/SEOUL/PARIS (Reuters) - Sombre results from chipmakers SK Hynix Inc and Texas Instruments Inc, on the heels of warnings from tech behemoths Samsung and Apple, indicate more gloom for the sector as China's economy slows to its weakest in decades.
A raft of earnings, analyst notes and market commentary in recent weeks have confirmed that a slowdown in the world's No.2 economy, exacerbated by its crippling trade war with the United States, will continue to squeeze sales and profits at technology companies, at least in the first half of the year.
Chinese woes led to South Korea's SK Hynix turning in its first quarterly profit decline in two years. The world's No.2 memory chipmaker, which depends on China for more than a third of its revenue, also said it plans to spend 40 percent less on buying chip equipment this year.
Texas Instruments (TI), supplier of touchscreen controllers, power-management chips and a control device for Apple's iPhones and iPads, reported a better-than-expected quarterly profit, but its revenue missed estimates.
The Dallas-based company said demand in China was weaker than other regions, especially for smartphones, including demand from Chinese smartphone makers.
"We are seeing signs from our customers and the channel that this weakness is primarily from increased caution due to trade tensions," Dave Pahl, head of TI's investor relations, said.
"We assume that this weakness is a combination of lower local end-demand as well as reduced exports, but we do not have the visibility to distinguish between the two."
STMicroelectronics, Europe's second-biggest chipmaker after Germany's Infineon Technologies, said it expected first-quarter sales to drop by more than a fifth from the last quarter of 2018.
The Geneva-based company, which supplies sensors to Apple and the automotive industry, is suffering from weaker demand for its mass-market microcontrollers as Asian clients use current inventories rather than placing new orders.
Market data indicates shipments in China, the world's largest smartphone market, fell about 12 percent last year as consumers held on to their older devices.
Economic growth in the country, which has generated nearly a third of global growth in recent years, slowed to its weakest in nearly three decades in 2018 and is expected to ease further this year.
Smartphone shipments will further dip 3 percent in 2019 to below 400 million for the first time in five years, market research firm Canalys estimates.
Apple was the first to flag anaemic Chinese demand for iPhones with a rare cut to its sales outlook earlier this month.
The company, which lost its crown as the world's top-listed firm after the news, is likely to have cut planned production for the March quarter as well, Nikkei reports.
Samsung Electronics, chip supplier to Apple and Chinese tech giant Huawei, followed with more bad news - an estimated 29 percent drop in fourth-quarter profit and subdued earnings for the current quarter.
"Demand in the tech industry is going to be weaker than thought in the first half," Seoul-based Yuanta Securities analyst Lee Jae-yun said.
"Until the first half of 2018, companies were very aggressive about their investment, then that quickly turned conservative from the second half of last year and will continue throughout the first half of 2019."
The Philadelphia Semiconductor Index has lost nearly a fifth of its gains since hitting a record high in March 2018, as chip prices fell due to bleak smartphone sales and a push back in spending by data centre customers to cut inventories.
Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Co Ltd (TSMC), which last week forecast its sharpest quarterly revenue fall in a decade, said a sudden drop in sales of high-end smartphones has led to an inventory build-up.
Still, the pushout in chip orders is generating optimism that sales will pick up towards the later half of the year.
Dutch chip-tooling company ASML Holding NV, which serves Samsung, TSMC and Intel, told Reuters that Chinese demand for chip manufacturing equipment has not waned.
ASML forecast lower sales for the first quarter, but said it would pick up later.
Things are also expected to get better for Samsung and Hynix, which have been plagued by weak demand from data centres.
STMicro shares jumped nearly 9 percent, making them the top performer on France's CAC 40 index after its boss delivered an upbeat forecast for the second half of the year.
Huawei, the world's No. 2 smartphone maker after Samsung, struck an optimistic note on Thursday, saying 2018 sales at its consumer business exceeded a record $52 billion on strong demand for its premium smartphones.
The company, which is facing mounting global scrutiny of its activities, also announced its first 5G base station chipset and said it aimed to unveil its first foldable 5G smartphone next month.
ASML's American rival Lam Research, posted better-than-expected quarterly results.
Programmable chipmaker Xilinx's results and outlook beat analysts' expectations, helped by rollouts and preparation for so-called 5G cell phone networks in South Korea and, to a lesser extent, China and North America.
(Reporting by Cate Cadell in Beijing and Ju-Min Park in Seoul; Additional reporting by Heekyong Yang, Sijia Jiang and Mathieu Rosemain; Writing by Sayantani Ghosh; Editing by Himani Sarkar and Jason Neely)