By Roberta B. Cowan
AMSTERDAM (Reuters) - Dutch chip equipment maker ASML kicks off the European technology stocks first-quarter earnings season on Wednesday, when it is expected to report a profit surge due to strong demand for smartchips.
ASML, the world's largest maker of semiconductor lithography machines, is also one of the first major European firms to release quarterly results after the devastating earthquake and tsunami in Japan on March 11. It may provide a clearer picture of the impact on the global supply chain.
At the end of March, ASML had confirmed that it had not experienced any impact on its supply chain as a result of the Japanese quake.
Analysts and investors, however, will listen carefully for any comments from ASML executives on Wednesday about the impact of the quake on the sector, on bookings for the upcoming quarters and on capex for this year and next.
Statements on the impact of the quake on company performance have so far been largely absent or very general, said European semiconductor analyst Niels de Zwart from ING.
"While this could indicate companies see a limited impact, we believe it mainly reflects the limited visibility on the overall supply chain," he said.
"While we do not expect a material impact from the Japan earthquake on our sector outlook for 2012, we might see some volatility during the earnings season due to comments on the Japan impact in the second quarter."
De Zwart said those firms with the greatest exposure to the automotive and communications end-market, including Infineon, Melexis Microelectronic Integrated Systems NV and STMicroelectronics, would most likely report more of an impact.
ASML is expected to report first-quarter net profit of 364 million euros, down 11 percent from a record-breaking fourth quarter, but up from 101 million euros a year ago.
Analysts expect ASML's first-quarter results to be in line with its guidance for sales of 1.4 billion euros, and to reiterate that it still sees 2011 sales topping 5 billion euros.
A surge in global demand for smaller, smarter semiconductors, used in tablet computers, and smartphones is driving ASML's higher sales and profits.
"Given the continued strength in end-demand, the popularity of the newest technologies such as tablets and the ongoing conversion to the newest production technologies, we believe the worries about a new down-cycle in the semiconductor industry are overdone," said Rabobank analyst Philip Scholte.
Analysts have mixed views as to the value of ASML's first-quarter order book, used as a gauge for predicting future sales and profit, ranging from 788 million euros to 1.9 billion euros. But they all agree it will be significantly less than the record-breaking 2.3 billion euros booked in the fourth quarter.
"We believe the tone of voice of management on end markets and underlying trends is more important and we expect this still to be very optimistic," said Scholte.
ASML, which has a global market share of about 70 percent and competes with Japan's Nikon Corp and Canon Inc, counts Intel Corp, Samsung Electronics Co and Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing among its customers.
(Reporting by Roberta B. Cowan; Editing by Sara Webb and Jane Merriman)