Does RIM shocker imply wider handset market deterioration?

RIM Q1 2013 Earnings Handset Industry

RIM was expected to deliver a nightmarish, -30% year-on-year revenue decline into the May quarter — the company issued its latest profit warning just four weeks ago. Yet it ended up missing the lowered consensus estimate by 10%, generating just $2.8 billion in sales. The reasons for RIM’s decline are well-known and will be rehashed again over the next 24 hours. But the size of the F1Q13 sales miss raises another question: apart from Apple and Samsung, is the handset industry drifting into serious trouble? 

Last week, HTC shocked many by announcing it is pulling out from Brazil, by far the most important market in Latin America. Earlier in June, Nokia surprised many by announcing it is pulling out of certain smaller markets, stopping Meltemi development and closing its Salo production facilities.

The industry knows these three vendors are in trouble. But despite lowered expectations, all three have delivered warnings that still managed to surprise Wall Street over the past six weeks. Now RIM managed to stun investors again.

Is it possible that the handset market is now weakening so rapidly that vendors and Wall Street simply cannot keep up? The early June warnings from HTC and Nokia were unusually early — phone vendors tend to warn closer to the end of the quarter. It is now clear that RIM’s late May warning was far too mildly phrased. Are handset sales volumes deteriorating so rapidly into the summer that even the extra cautious April guidance from the weaker vendors left them far behind the curve?

Obviously, the biggest question mark is Europe. Retail sales volume in markets from Spain to Netherlands have started collapsing at a more than -8% annualized pace. How that impacts handset sales is not clear. In the handset industry, June is the key month of the spring quarter; it is materially bigger than May or April. European debt crisis really started spiraling out of control in May — June could be the month when the full impact on consumer electronics sales will be revealed.

June figures were not included in RIM’s new quarterly report and European retail data on the month won’t come out in more than a month.

We have some weeks to go before the full picture of the 2Q12 handset sales trends is revealed. The early signs are fairly grim. Back in 2000 when the phone industry was blindsided by a sudden volume decline, the first warnings came from the weaker names: Siemens, Philips, Ericsson and Alcatel. None of them produce mobile phones anymore. That cyclical downturn was triggered by a wider tech meltdown; this time, the problems come from European debt crisis.

But back in 2000, the handset market was still supported by underlying subscriber growth. In the next cyclical downturn, the sub growth in advanced markets will be close to zero.

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