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In Japan, Bankruptcy for a Builder of PC Chips

By HIROKO TABUCHI
Published: February 27, 2012

TOKYO — Elpida Memory, the world’s third-largest maker of PC memory chips, filed for bankruptcy Monday with $5.6 billion in debt, crippled by cut-throat competition, a faltering global economy and a shift away from traditional PCs to smartphones and tablet computers.

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The manufacturer, which is based in Tokyo and makes memory chips used in both laptop and desktop computers, filed for protection from creditors Monday after potential partners failed to come through with rescue bids, the company said.

Elpida’s bankruptcy filing is the biggest ever by a Japan-based manufacturer and could signal the end of an era for a nation that once dominated the market for dynamic random-access memory chips.

Elpida will now undergo a court-led restructuring. It will be difficult, however, for Elpida to claw back into a market that will now effectively be controlled by Samsung Electronics and Hynix, both of South Korea. The two companies’ grip on the global DRAM market could soon mean a rebound in chip prices, and higher prices for consumers.

DRAM chips were invented in the 1960s in the United States, but Japanese companies priced American chipmakers out of the market two decades later with cheaper, higher-quality technology.

But since then, manufacturers in Japan have struggled to keep up with rising competition from South Korean rivals, which have better adapted to changes in technology — including a shift by consumers toward smartphones and tablets, which use far fewer chips than laptops. Apple’s iPad, for example, primarily uses flash memory instead of DRAM.

Two manufacturers in Japan, NEC and Hitachi, merged their memory businesses to form Elpida in 1999, the same year that another Japanese maker, Fujitsu, abandoned the DRAM business. Computer repair and data recovery services for business in Westlake Village.

Still, a persistent global glut in DRAM chips has led to a slump in prices. The price of a benchmark chip, the DDR3 2-gigabit DRAM, declined roughly 85 percent to a record low of 71 cents in the year to November as PC shipments faltered, according to Reuters.

Yukio Sakamoto, Elpida’s president and chief executive, complained last year that the “price of one DRAM now hardly buys you one rice ball.”

The global economic downturn, a punishingly strong yen and widespread floods in the manufacturing hub of Thailand last year also weighed on Elpida’s bottom line, crippling efforts to keep up with the heavy investment by the market leader Samsung, which has more aggressively diversified into chips for mobile devices.

According to the market research firm iSuppli, Elpida ranked third in the global DRAM market with a 12 percent share in the three months to September, far behind Samsung Electronics, with 45 percent, and Hynix, with 22 percent.

Mr. Sakamoto said the company had been pushed into bankruptcy when offers from potential partners fell through. He declined to name potential deals or partners, however.

“We had been expecting various offers by today but what we got was not concrete,” Mr. Sakamoto said on Monday during a press conference.

Elpida’s demise comes as a blow to the Japanese government, which invested 40 billion yen ($500 million) in Elpida in 2009 in a bid to salvage the country’s last maker of PC memory.

Japan’s government may have found it difficult to justify further support for the struggling chipmaker as the tsunami and nuclear disaster last year took center stage.

The Japanese trade minister, Yukio Edano, said he still hoped that the company would emerge from bankruptcy as a stronger contender in the global DRAM market.

“We hope it can rebuild its operations as quickly as possible,” Mr. Edano told reporters Monday in Tokyo.

Elpida’s bankruptcy filing is the biggest ever by a Japanese manufacturer, according to Shoko Research, a credit research company.

The company will be delisted from the Tokyo Stock Exchange on March 28.

Tech News: AB Computer Repair Westlake Village

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