NEW YORK (CNN/Money) -
Is Intel getting ready for a big acquisition?
The world's largest semiconductor company has made some purchases during the past few years but one analyst thinks Intel could be preparing for its biggest one yet.
In a report Friday, Bernstein analyst Adam Parker noted that Intel (INTC: Research, Estimates) did not buy back any stock in the third quarter, the first time since 1993.
Parker thinks Intel could be trying to conserve cash for a major deal. At the end of the third quarter, Intel had $15.2 billion in cash and short-term investments.
Parker said that possible targets for Intel range from lesser-known names such as communications chip makers Silicon Laboratories (SLAB: Research, Estimates) and Marvell Technology (MRVL: Research, Estimates) to larger companies like Broadcom (BRCM: Research, Estimates) and Analog Devices (ADI: Research, Estimates). A spokesman for Intel would not comment.
Small deals possible
Other analysts think that smaller deals are possible but that a takeover of Broadcom or Analog Devices is highly unlikely. Analog Devices has a market value of $16 billion and Broadcom's is $10 billion.
"Typically Intel looks for small companies that it can easily assimilate, and if the deal doesn't work, it would just get lost in the shuffle," said Patrick Ho, an analyst with Moors & Cabot.
Intel's largest deal during the past few years was a $2.1 billion acquisition in 1999 of networking chip maker Level One Communications.
Ho said he could see Intel making an acquisition of a company that specializes in analog chips -- those that convert light and sound waves into digital signals. The market for such chips, important in wireless communications, has remained strong.
Analog Devices is the leader in this area, but two smaller targets, according to Ho, are Intersil (ISIL: Research, Estimates) and Power Integrations (POWI: Research, Estimates). Intersil's market value is $3.6 billion and Power Integrations' is $1.1 billion.
On the communications side, rumors of an Intel-Broadcom combination have been circulating for some time. Broadcom makes chips that are used in cable and DSL modems as well as for wireless networking.
The speculation has increased this year since Broadcom's longtime CEO Henry Nicholas stepped down in January. In addition, the two companies, which have had a contentious history, agreed to settle all patent litigation in August.
Even so, Ho thinks Intel would probably do a smaller deal, perhaps for Broadcom competitor Applied Micro Circuits (AMCC: Research, Estimates), which has a market value of just $1.8 billion.
Ho said Intel could also target chip companies that cater to other areas of communications, such as the cell phone market. With that in mind, he said Intel could make a run at a company like Triquint Semiconducto (TQNT: Research, Estimates)r, which manufactures radio frequency integrated circuits and has a market value of $1 billion.
Eric Rothdeutsch, an analyst with Friedman Billings Ramsey, also thinks that Intel would be interested in mergers to lessen its reliance on personal computers and servers -- microprocessors, chipsets and motherboards for PCs and servers account for 87 percent of sales.
"Intel has been perpetually on the acquisition trail," said Rothdeutsch. "They want to augment the communications business."
Checkered acquisition strategy
Would an acquisition be a good move? Not necessarily, say analysts, given Intel's track record.
"On the communications side, acquisitions have fallen into a black hole," said Rothdeutsch, referring to the Level One deal and the $1.6 billion purchase of DSP Communications in 1999.
Krishna Shankar, an analyst with JMP Securities, said that the only major deal that he thinks has paid dividends for Intel was the 1998 purchase of Chips and Technologies, which gave Intel a stronger foothold in the graphics chip market.
So Shankar thinks Intel should resist the urge to merge. "Intel did a lot of deals during the bubble period, paying for companies with a lot of interesting technology but little revenue. Intel is better off growing on its own," he said.
As for why Intel didn't purchase any shares in the third quarter, Shankar said it could simply have been a matter of price. Intel's stock has soared 116 percent year-to-date, hitting a new 52-week high on Monday
"The stock has had a big run," said Shankar.
Shankar owns shares of Intel but JMP Securities has no investment banking relationship with the company. Other analysts quoted in this story do not own Intel and their firms have no investment banking ties to the company.