Corning looks to break the gorilla glass ceiling

The venerable company this week introduced the second generation of its scratch-resistant glass for tech gadgets.

By The Fiscal Times Jan 12, 2012 12:45PM
corningBy Suzanne McGee, The Fiscal Times

Can a "gorilla" get the monkey off Corning's (GLW) back?

That's certainly what the manufacturer of glassware and related products is hoping, just as a decade ago it counted on fiber-optics to revive its fortunes. The gorilla in question is actually the second generation of Corning's Gorilla Glass. This tough and scratch-resistant glass is used by manufacturers of smartphones, tablets and other consumer electronic gadgets can use to make their own products more appealing to consumers.

Around Thanksgiving, Corning cut its forecast for its fourth-quarter earnings, partly because of a slump in demand and prices for liquid crystal display glass and because a South Korean customer walked away from a contract to purchase products from the company. At the same time, Corning said sales of the original Gorilla Glass would fall 25% from the previous year, having earlier predicted a 15% decline.

Will the new version of Gorilla Glass be enough to revive the company's earnings, not to mention its stock price? Since Corning only unveiled the product at this week's Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, it's too soon to tell. It is thinner and lighter, Corning claims, without losing any of its strength.

That means that customers could produce thinner devices themselves -- the kind of ultra-lightweight smartphones, tablets, e-readers and other gizmos consumers covet most -- without sacrificing anything in terms of sensitivity to touch or image clarity. Acer, Asus and Microsoft (MSFT) will be using Gorilla Glass 2 in some new devices, but Corning needs other device makers to jump on board as well.

At the end of the day, however, it all boils down to the consumers themselves. Are they ready to replace year-old devices with thinner, lighter-weight versions offering higher-quality images -- or will they opt to just make do and save money?

One of the reasons for the slow and steady slide in Corning's stock price last year was that consumers were reluctant to shop -- except when offered big discounts. While consumers are still hyper-sensitive to bad macro news (such as stubbornly high unemployment rates and the prospect of Europe's crisis leading to another recession), same-store sales did do better than many pundits had expected in December, and luxury retailers did better than most. So consumers, while still value-conscious, do seem to be willing to open their wallets and spend to acquire new gadgets as long as it's clear that these gadgets are also of higher quality.

Absent an economic crisis or other macro-level setback, Corning's share price could respond quickly to any good Gorilla Glass news. The stock, up 6% since Friday's close, has outperformed the Dow Jones Industrial Average and the S&P 500 since the product was launched, while still hovering not far off its 52-week low of $11.51. (It closed at $14.32 Wednesday, up 2.4%.)

The company is scheduled to report its fourth-quarter earnings Jan. 24, and now that its bearish revision of sales guidance has been processed, all analysts but one are recommending the stock as a "hold" to an "overweight" or "buy." (The median forecast is for the stock to rise to $18 a share; the highest price target is a whopping $24.)

Corning recently boosted its dividend payout -- a sign that it's quietly confident about its future prospects. If the company's stock price slumps in response to earnings, that may be an opportunity to bet that the gorilla -- or rather, Gorilla Glass 2 -- will revive the company's fortunes.

Related Links:
CES 2012: A New Picture of the Future of TV
10 Hot Investing Trends for 2012
Earnings Season: Wall Street Focuses on Fundamentals

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