Tech

Tim Culpan is a technology columnist for Bloomberg Gadfly. He previously covered technology for Bloomberg News.

Samsung Electronics Co. made two major announcements on Tuesday amid its third-quarter earnings release. They need to be understood separately, but analyzed together.

First, South Korea's biggest company pledged to double dividend payouts next year and dish out a total of 29 trillion won ($26 billion) in the three years through 2020.

Liquid
Samsung's free cash flow has risen, but it's not very stable
Source: Samsung, Bloomberg
Note: 2017 figure is based on analyst estimates compiled by Bloomberg.

Second, the world's largest maker of displays and memory chips forecast an aggressive 81 percent rise in capex this year, driven by a doubling of spending on its chip business.

Samsung's generous new dividend policy isn't that new. In a response to activist shareholder pressure, the company said in November last year it would allocate 50 percent of free cash flow to shareholder returns. Some of that was to go toward a cash dividend, with the rest to be spent on share buybacks. This latest announcement merely cements what seemed to be a one-off policy into a three-year pledge.

A year ago, Samsung claimed it needed to maintain around 65 trillion won to 70 trillion won in cash. I vehemently disagreed, and I wasn't alone. In Samsung's earnings call Tuesday, executives answered the question of the firm's ballooning cash balance by saying that rising M&A and capex will mean there won't be any significant increase this year. Translation: We're not stockpiling money any more.

Which brings me to the second issue. Samsung's capex expansion is swift and aggressive. From 25.5 trillion won in 2016, it will spend 46.2 trillion won this year. Significantly, 29.5 trillion won of that will be on chip facilities -- mostly memory -- while a boost in display spending will take that division's 2017 capex to almost four times the level three years ago.

How to Spend It
Samsung is spending more on semiconductors after a boost for displays last year
Source: Samsung
Note: Breakdown not available for 2010-2013.

It's too early to be alarmed, but investors will need to watch closely. Soon after Samsung outlined the dividend and capex policy, it turned its investor call over to divisional chiefs, and that's where caution is warranted.

Despite being the global leader in both DRAM and NAND flash memory chips, Samsung forecast that it won't outgrow the market this year. Global NAND supply has fallen short of demand for the past six quarters, yet that situation will regain its balance next year, according to researcher TrendForce Corp. That limits the prospects for price increases, just as Samsung is boosting spending.

At the same time, Samsung said its display business will focus less on gaining market share and more on profitability. That sounds like a good thing, and it is, yet it's also a familiar refrain. LG Display Co. said the same last week, signaling to competitors an easing of output growth that may help stabilize prices. If this is the case, then a large increase in display spending would be something to watch. For now, Samsung has the lead in OLED, but aggressive competitors have the ability to cut that early-mover advantage very quickly.

Dual Direction
While operating margins for Samsung's two major divisions have climbed, history shows they can also fall during tough times
Source: Samsung

Samsung says its chip and display investments are for the longer term and not about chasing next year's demand, which is reasonable. But it's important to remember that both sectors are highly cyclical. It's a brave firm that spends money on a business near its peak.

History Channel
It wasn't so long ago that Samsung's display business dipped into losses and chip profits were falling
Source: Bloomberg

You only need to go back a few years to find a time when margins were low and profits weak. Samsung is currently enjoying a high point in profit, share price and capex. Savvy investors, however, know history has a habit of repeating itself. At least they've got the lure of cash dividends to keep them interested.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author of this story:
Tim Culpan in Taipei at tculpan1@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Katrina Nicholas at knicholas2@bloomberg.net