The U.S. semiconductor industry got a long-awaited dose of good numbers Tuesday: Chip orders came in faster than shipments went out last month.
That, according to the Semiconductor Industry Assn., a trade group based in San Jose, signals that the 17-month recession in the industry is bottoming out.
However, Dataquest, a high-technology market research firm, this week added some sour news of its own: It estimated that this year, for the first time ever, sales of semiconductors will be higher in Japan than in the United States.
Although Dataquest's forecast is bolder than those of other companies that study the same numbers, many analysts say it indicates a continuing trend in which Asian companies use more and more computer chips in their consumer electronics, such as microwave ovens, television sets and computer systems products.
Should Dataquest's prediction be borne out, that would leave the U.S. manufacturers of the tiny electronic circuits facing not only stiffer competition at home from Asian manufacturers but a shift of the customer bases to marketplaces that traditionally have been closed or highly inaccessible to them.
Worldwide sales of semiconductors dipped almost 20% to $22 billion in 1985. During the year, U.S. makers saw new orders plunge from the record 1984 levels and shipments drop in concert. As orders have been creeping back up, the industry's index of the balance between orders and shipments--called the book-to-bill ratio--has been improving.
But January was the first time in 17 months that the dollar value of orders was greater than the value of shipments. The SIA said the book-to-bill ratio was 1.04, meaning that, for every $104 worth of orders received by manufacturers, $100 of goods were shipped.
The last time the index was above 1.00 was in August, 1984, when it stood at 1.02. However, Shiela Sandow of the SIA noted, January's level of business is only about 60% of what it was then.
Last month, the SIA said, the average of monthly orders reached $610.6 million, a 5.1% increase from December. Shipments in January fell 12.5% to $546.2 million.
"The fact that the book-to-bill ratio has improved for five consecutive months is very encouraging," said SIA President Andrew A. Procassini.
In its revised forecast, Dataquest said the worldwide market for semiconductors will expand 16% this year to total sales of $28.6 billion (it estimates 1985 sales at $24.7 billion).
Of that figure, it estimated, sales in Japan by all makers of semiconductors will be $11 billion, and sales in the U.S. market will be $10.6 billion.
Rise in Yen's Value
Those figures represent a 29% increase in the Japanese market and, Dataquest analysts said, 17 percentage points of that growth can be attributed to the rise of the yen's value in relationship to the U.S. dollar. The other part of the growth, it says, will be real growth and will exceed the projected 10% growth in the U.S. market.
Gene Norrett, a Dataquest vice president who tracks Asian semiconductor markets, said Japan's overtaking of the U.S. market has broad implications for the electronics industry. The numbers, he said, mean that access to the Japanese market will become the most crucial trade issue for U.S. high-technology firms--more important than protecting U.S. markets from so-called "dumping" of cheap foreign products.
Some analysts were not surprised by the Dataquest numbers, saying they reflect the continuation of a trend in which the Japanese manufacturers are gaining greater shares of most segments of the world market and are also consuming great amounts of the components for use in consumer electronics--a field they dominate.
Computers, Military Gear
Marshall Cox, chairman of Western Micro Technology, a San Jose-based distributor of both Japanese- and U.S.-made semiconductors, called the Dataquest forecast "preposterous."
Cox, who said use of chips in American-made computers and military equipment far exceeds their use in Japanese consumer products, said: "That the Japanese are gaining ground in the U.S. market on the U.S. companies, I'll buy in a nanosecond. That the Japanese are gaining market shares worldwide, I'll buy. But I will not buy that the Japanese market is bigger than the U.S."