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JP Morgan urges chip CEOs to inhale

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Chip companies need to start acting their age, according to a sage analyst.

Chris Danely, director of semiconductor research at JP Morgan, thinks the major semiconductor players should behave more like old-line companies in the tobacco, food and oil games. He'd like to see the chip firms manage their cash better and reward shareholders with larger dividends. He'd also like them to slash the hell out of their research and development budgets and stop acting like super fancy innovators when they're really just stodgy manufacturing machines.

"Think more like Phillip Morris and less like Google," Danely said. "I know it is very hard to talk like this."

Danely's line is especially hard to swallow out here in Silicon Valley where besting the competitive turmoil that stems from Moore's Law through innovation is meant to be the goal. But that didn't stop Danely from cramming his pitch right down the gullets of Valleyites during last night's annual "Semiconductor Forecast" event held by the Churchill Club.

Other speakers at the event echoed some of Danely's underlying sentiments. The rather mature chip industry looks much less volatile nowadays as compared to even just 10 years ago when boom and bust cycles were the natural companions of silicon. Now, we find an industry that grows revenue at about 10 per cent per year or twice the US GDP.

"There are tons of industries out there that would love to have 10 per cent growth," Danely said. "Now that we are out of this hyper-growth phase, it is time to run semiconductor businesses more like a normal company."

Danely seemed quite taken with Mark Hurd's approach at HP, celebrating the decision to "cut some unnecessary R&D projects" and to manage cash "very efficiently."

Speaking about the chip industry in this way certainly removes a bit of its luster. But Sangeeth Peruri, another panelist and managing director at big money house J. & W. Seligman & Co., said that the chip industry's maturation and stabilization opens up some new opportunities for investors.

Investors now have the time to take closer looks at companies' fundamentals and management. So, you can buy into a company after careful study, worrying less about whether you're timing the purchase for the right cycle, since the cycles are less dramatic these days.

"You used to get killed if you got the cycles wrong," Peruri said.

A number of the analysts expressed concerns over the US tax rebate handed out this year. They expect the boost to fade in the coming months and wonder how that dwindling cash will combine with still struggling banks and a still grim housing market.

"I think we are going to have a recession," Peruri said. "I don't know when it will hit."

But things aren't all so grim.

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