Tech Industry, Long Insulated, Feels a Slump
The technology industry, which resisted the economy’s growing weakness over the last year as customers kept buying laptops and iPhones, has finally succumbed to the slowdown.
In the span of just a few weeks, orders for both business and consumer tech products have collapsed, and technology companies have begun laying off workers. The plunge is so severe that some executives are comparing it with the dot-com bust in 2000, when hundreds of companies disappeared and Silicon Valley lost nearly a fifth of its jobs.
October “was like turning a switch,” said Robert Barbera, chief economist at the Investment Technology Group, a research and trading firm. “Everything pretty much shut down.”
After industry leaders like Intel and Nokia warned of slowing sales this week, investors aggressively sold technology stocks. On Friday, the Nasdaq composite index, which is full of technology names, fell 5 percent. Advanced Micro Devices and eBay both dropped more than 10 percent.
Tech companies directly account for about 4 percent of the nation’s employment. And globally, companies and governments spend about $1.75 trillion on technology a year, according to Forrester Research. But the industry’s importance to the world economy is larger than its size might suggest. Technology has fueled many of the productivity gains of the last two decades. And about half of the capital spending by corporations goes toward technology products, according to Moody’s Economy.com.
As struggling businesses cut back on spending of all kinds, a slowdown in tech proved inevitable.
During the dot-com crash, technology companies were victims of Internet hype that they helped create. Once the enthusiasm faded, so did the boom-era sales on software and infrastructure equipment.
However, consumer enthusiasm for products like video games, wireless phones and high-definition televisions helped the industry recover.
This time around, the tech sector finds itself at the mercy of a double-barreled slump in both corporate and consumer spending caused by the housing decline and the economic crisis on Wall Street. Technology companies are also feeling the effect of frozen credit markets as business and government customers struggle to finance computer and software purchases that can run to millions of dollars.
“We have never seen anything like this in history,” said William T. Coleman III, a Silicon Valley veteran who founded the software maker BEA Systems and is now chief executive at a start-up called Cassatt.
Best Buy, the leading electronics retailer, declared this week that “rapid, seismic changes in consumer behavior” had fostered the worst conditions in its 42-year history, and its main rival, Circuit City Stores, filed for bankruptcy protection. Nokia, the world’s largest maker of cellphones, predicted Friday that global sales of handsets would fall in 2009, which would be only the second decline ever.
Technology giants like Intel, which makes chips for personal computers and servers, and Cisco Systems, which makes network equipment, warned that revenue was plummeting at rates last seen in 2001.
Dozens of start-ups, like the messaging service Twitter and the electric carmaker Tesla Motors, have been cutting staff members as they prepare for a slow economy.
And on Friday, Sun Microsystems, a leading maker of computers used by financial services companies, announced that it would lay off as many as 6,000 employees, or 18 percent of its work force.
The turnaround has been as sudden as it is severe. Until late September, a number of large technology companies maintained an optimistic stance, despite the obvious distress in the global economy.
Cisco was the first large technology company to reveal its sales data from October, noting a 9 percent fall in sales compared with the same month last year. On Nov. 5, Cisco, which is based in San Jose, cautioned that because of a “completely different environment,” revenue in its current quarter could plummet as much as 10 percent — a major reversal from the 7 percent growth that Wall Street had been expecting.
Intel, the world’s largest chip maker, followed this week, warning that sales in the fourth quarter could fall as much as 19 percent compared with the same period last year.
Even Google, an advertising juggernaut that many analysts said they believed would weather a downturn better than other companies, is now feeling the impact.
About eight weeks ago, the company’s chief executive, Eric E. Schmidt, told reporters, “My guess is that the drama is in New York and not here.” A month later, Google surprised Wall Street when it reported strong financial results for the quarter that ended Sept. 30, sending its shares up 10 percent.
But Google’s stock has dropped 16 percent since, as the same analysts who were upbeat about its results have since cut their revenue and profit forecasts. This week, its shares dipped below $300 for the first time in three years, well below their $742 peak. And the company, known for its torrid hiring and free-spending on employee perks, has begun the most serious belt-tightening in its 10-year history.
“We don’t know as managers how long the crisis goes,” Mr. Schmidt said last week.
For all the gloom, the tech industry is still far healthier than Wall Street. Unlike the banks, many technology companies are flush with cash. Cisco has close to $27 billion; Google, $14 billion; and Apple, $24 billion. It is likely that some of these funds will go toward acquiring struggling competitors. “The guys that aren’t as strong will be good pickings,” Mr. Coleman said.
Powered by technology, Silicon Valley has stood out as a bright spot for jobs in the United States, with employment growing at about 2 percent a year while national employment slowed. Through 2007, the region continued to add 20,000 jobs, although that positive trend has started to change.
“With this now having become a worldwide event, it’s clear that the job losses will come,” said Stephen Levy, director of the Center for Continuing Study of the California Economy.
Given the unpredictability of the current economy, the industry’s past experience will only go so far, said Chris Cornell, an economist with Economy.com. “It would be a tragic mistake for C.E.O.’s who did a great job fighting the last recession to think the same tactics will work this time,” he said.Miguel Helft contributed reporting.