Understanding Samsung's 95% drop in profits and its upcoming resurgence

Samsung is facing its biggest profit dip in 14 years, but there's more to the story. From chip market challenges to innovative strides in foldable phones, let’s dive into the tech giant's journey of downturns and anticipated resurgence.

In a sweeping tide of economic volatility, the once-thriving memory chip market is downsizing, leading Samsung to witness its lowest profit margin in over a decade. Having ridden the wave of record-breaking profits recently, buoyed by high prices for their products, the tech giant is now grappling with the aftermath of a global economic slowdown that has significantly impeded memory chip sales.

Samsung's sales figures for July dipped by 22% compared to the previous year, while its operating profit saw a jarring 95% drop for two consecutive quarters. The easing of pandemic-related lockdowns led to a swift reduction in the demand for semiconductor chips, a trend further exacerbated by rising inflation rates and interest rates.

Although Samsung anticipated the downturn and the impact on profits, the actual depth of the decline, fueled by an oversupply of chips and weakening demand, was severe. By delaying its production cutback until April 2023, while other companies had already started in November 2022, Samsung was left with a daunting surplus of unsold chips. This sequence of events has plunged the semiconductor chip industry into its most significant downturn.

Why Samsung's profits are falling faster than smartphone shipments

Samsung's semiconductor branch operates under two primary business models. The first model is centered on producing generic products like memory chips, where Samsung determines the quantity manufactured. The production volume is not boundless but is governed by the product's sell-through rate. Prices are primarily dictated by supply and demand in the market, so when market demand shrinks, production volume decreases quickly.

The second model is the foundry business model, where Samsung manufactures wafers for other semiconductor design companies such as Qualcomm. These wafers are eventually turned into IC chips. In this scenario, Samsung doesn't control the demand or volume – these are directed by the requirements from the end products, trickling down through components, chips, and finally to Samsung. The cost of producing these wafers, determined by Samsung, typically remains steady despite market fluctuations. However, during a market slump, a decrease in volume can significantly negatively impact Samsung's operations.

Ultimately, the sharp fall in Samsung's profits is the result of the substantial drop in demand for its memory chips and IC wafers, affected by global economic conditions.

Samsung's quest for mobile innovation

Samsung's strategic pivot towards foldable phones is an intriguing play to counterbalance its downturn in the semiconductor segment. In an era where most smartphones mirror each other regarding aesthetics and functionalities, Samsung is focusing on carving out a niche in the foldable phone market.

With global smartphone shipments predicted to decline by 3.2% in 2023, totaling approximately 1.17 billion units, Samsung's decision appears to be a calculated gamble. But by going all in on its high-end Galaxy Z Flip 5 and Galaxy Z Fold 5 series, it's on a mission to consolidate its foothold in the global foldable smartphone market.

The tech giant has underscored these launches as transformative steps in pioneering unique experiences that its competitors, like Apple, currently do not offer. However, it's crucial to note that Samsung's standard candy bar-style Galaxy S23 still drives a substantial portion of the company's profits in the premium segment, highlighting the enduring appeal of conventional smartphone designs.

Interestingly, this new trajectory refers to the nostalgia of flip phones, once the coveted tech status symbols of the late '90s and early 2000s. It's a cyclical tech trend that Samsung is now keen to revitalize. Still, it's worth questioning the longevity of this trend and identifying exactly which problems Samsung is solving with its foldable phones. The typical demands of improved battery life, enhanced durability, superior cameras, and lower prices might not be met by expensive foldable smartphones.

Samsung's bid to redefine the future

As consumer tastes and market trends change, Samsung's efforts in foldable phones showcase its ability to adapt and innovate. Meanwhile, their battery and electronics division, Samsung SDI, continues to thrive, recently recording its best second-quarter revenue and profit driven by a growing demand for Electric Vehicles.

Samsung has also teamed up with Naver Corp., South Korea's top online search company. Together, they're working on a new artificial intelligence platform, hoping to create its own in-house version of ChatGPT after learning a few lessons from the recent data leak. Naver will use Samsung's chip data to improve this new AI, with Samsung aiming to then take it to the next level. By the end of this year, the two companies plan to launch advanced AI chips, stepping into the ring with heavyweights like Nvidia. And with experts predicting that the AI chip market will grow from $23 billion in 2020 to $260 billion in 2033, this Samsung-Naver duo could be at the forefront of the AI revolution.

Additionally, with the chip market anticipated to find its footing again in the latter half of the year and global demand similarly expected to rebound, the horizon looks promising for Samsung, particularly in its component business. However, the path ahead is not without its hurdles. In a world grappling with environmental concerns and a shifting sentiment against disposable consumerism, the tech industry, including giants like Samsung, must reckon with more significant existential questions.

The era of regular phone upgrades is being scrutinized as consumers weigh the pros and cons of innovative designs over traditional utility, longevity, and sustainability. The allure of a foldable phone is undeniably strong, but whether it can overshadow the comforts of durability and value for money is a debate still in its infancy. Samsung's journey ahead, while hopeful, is likely to be a measured climb marked by introspection, innovation, and an unwavering commitment to meeting ever-changing consumer needs.

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