Semiconductor inventory reaches record levels -

Chip inventories reached record highs near the end of 2012, and according to IHS iSuppli, semiconductor revenue will decline in Q1, prompting new concerns about the state of the market.

Overall semiconductor revenue is expected to slide three percent between January and March 2013, on top of a 0.7 percent decline in Q4 2012. What's more, inventory reached record levels in Q3 2012, amounting to 49.3 percent of revenue, more than at any point since Q1 2006. IHS iSuppli believes the uncomfortably high level of inventory points to the failure of key demand drivers to materialise.

The PC market remains slow and hopes of a Windows 8 renaissance have turned into a nightmare. Bellwether Intel saw its revenue drop three percent in Q4, with profit tumbling 27 percent, and the trend is set to continue. AMD is expected to announce its earnings Tuesday afternoon and more gloom is expected across the board. The only bright spot in an otherwise weak market is TSMC, which quickly rebounded after posting the lowest revenues in two years a year ago. TSMC now expects to see huge demand for 28nm products in 2013 and many observers point to a possible deal with Apple.

In addition, TSMC plans to invest $9 billion in capital expenditure in 2013, and it will likely spend even more in 2014, as it moves to ramp up 20nm production. However, Intel's plans to increase capital spending to $13 billion, up $2 billion over 2012 levels, have not been welcomed by analysts and investors. Unlike TSMC, Intel is not investing to increase capacity in the short term, it is making a strategic bet on 450mm wafer technology, which promises to deliver significantly cheaper chips compared to existing 300mm wafers. However, 450mm plants are still years away.

TSMC's apparent success has a lot to do with high demand for smartphones and tablets, which are slowly eating into the traditional PC market. Semiconductor shipments for the wireless segment were expected to climb around four percent in 2012 and positive trends were visible in analog, logic and NAND components. However, the mobile boom can't last forever, and we are already hearing talk of "smartphone fatigue" and "peak Apple".

IHS iSuppli estimates the first quarter of 2013 will see growth in industrial and automotive electronics and other semiconductor markets will eventually overcome the seasonal decline, so a rebound is expected in the second and third quarters.

Semiconductor revenue could grow by four percent in the second, and nine percent in the third quarter. However, the assumptions are based on a wider economic recovery, which is anything but certain at this point. If demand evaporates, semiconductor suppliers could find themselves hit by an oversupply situation, leading to more inventory write-downs throughout the year.