Samsung Electronics Co has pledged to keep cutting memory chip production while forecasting a rebound in sales in the second half of the year, as AI demand helps global tech spending climb out of a post-Covid funk.

Samsung, which on Thursday reported better-than-expected net income, said artificial intelligence will provide a boost to memory demand before the year’s end. Korea’s largest company plans to double its capacity to make high-bandwidth memory (HBM), a next-generation technique used to help train AI, by 2024.

That outlook and commitment toward developing the new technology went down well with investors who sent its shares 2.7 per cent higher in Seoul. The focus now is on a race with SK Hynix Inc. to develop tools vital to AI, allowing the world’s two largest memory chipmakers to capitalise on a boom that’s emerged since OpenAI’s ChatGPT captivated investors and consumers last fall.

Until that demand kicks in, Samsung and Hynix aim to weather the current economic uncertainty by sticking with promises to curtail output of NAND chips used in PCs and phones in a bid to arrest sliding prices.

“The worst from memory is behind us,” said Sanjeev Rana, an analyst with CLSA Securities Korea Ltd. Prices were rebounding in the second quarter for Hynix, and will probably gain ground in the third quarter for Samsung, he said.

Samsung expects generative AI to drive a “rapid increase in demand” for high-performance memory able to process large amounts of data, said Jaejune Kim, executive vice-president of Samsung’s memory business. But he warned, “Demand for general servers and storage was relatively limited.”

Samsung said it won’t provide a bit shipment guidance for the full year, due to macroeconomic uncertainties. Overall memory inventory seems to have peaked in May, but a tepid post-Covid recovery in China’s hitting demand for logic chips, it said.

The company, a bellwether for the industry because of its leading position in chips, electronics and smartphones, said its net income fell 86 per cent to 1.55 trillion won ($1.2 billion) in the quarter ended in June. That still beat an average estimate of 925 billion won, thanks to a lift from a weak won. Earlier this month, Samsung had reported its worst decline in quarterly revenue in more than a decade.

Rival SK Hynix, which already supplies HBM chips to Nvidia Corp., will likely be the bigger beneficiary of any demand for chips to help develop and train generative AI platforms, analysts said. On Wednesday, SK Hynix reported sales ahead of estimates and declared that AI will soon ignite the long-awaited rebound. Its shares jumped more than 9.7 per cent.

“Hynix had the first-mover advantage, but I expect Samsung to catch up,” Rana said of the HBM market. “Samsung’s HBM shipments will accelerate in 2024.”

Samsung is now trying to catch up on two fronts: it seeks to win more orders for AI-supporting chips, while it also expands its foundry business, where it trails Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Co. Of Samsung’s entire quarterly capex of 14.5 trillion won, more than 90 per cent was spent on chips, it said.

Samsung’s results come after TSMC cut its outlook last week and postponed production at its Arizona project to 2025 — a warning signal that underscores the extent of the uncertainty roiling the global chip arena.

Investors are looking to the tech industry’s largest companies for hints on when demand for electronics and semiconductors will bounce back — a challenging task given the uneven global outlook, soaring inflation and China’s post-Covid turbulence. 

Bulging inventory

In particular, Samsung is a barometer for a $160-billion memory industry that built capacity too rapidly during better times and is now grappling with bulging inventories. Its output cuts represents a significant step for a company that in the past continued production through industry downturns.

Another potential long-term growth driver are Samsung’s automotive memory chips, which the company expects to grow more than 30 per cent on average for the next five years.

Apart from semiconductors, Samsung’s smartphone business — the world’s largest — is fighting to entice customers. The Korean company now expects its smartphone shipments to rise in the current quarter, and the average selling price to improve from the second quarter.

Samsung introduced the fifth generation of its foldable smartphones on Wednesday, seeking to counter upcoming rival products from Apple Inc. It’s also studying a lower-cost option in a bid to win market share in the increasingly popular foldable phone category.

Executives also said the company is working on a mixed-reality device and will build an ecosystem to support content development in the nascent arena that now includes Apple’s Vision Pro headset.

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