Mobile phone market hits ‘the great moderation’

After four straight years of double-digit growth, the mobile phone market has hit a wall. Excluding Chinese vendors, the industry is likely to see little or no revenue growth this year, Raymond James analyst Tavis McCourt said in a research note late Monday.

“The great moderation of mobile device growth is upon us,” McCourt wrote.

Revenue growth from publicly traded mobile phone vendors, which account for 70% of the industry total, slowed to 7.3% year over year in the fourth quarter, the slowest pace since the recession, McCourt said. Based on the companies’ first-quarter guidance, revenue growth is likely to dip to 1.8%, he said.

“In aggregate, we believe the industry ex-Chinese vendors is likely to see little to no growth this year,” he said. “Chinese-based vendors now account for 30% of industry revenue and 40% of industry volumes, and although growth is still elevated at Chinese-based vendors, we suspect these vendors will slow in 2014 as well, as China’s end markets for smartphones slow.”

Apple (AAPL) and Samsung continue to soak up all the industry’s profits, McCourt says. Apple claimed 87.4% of phone earnings before interest and taxes in the fourth quarter, he said. Samsung took in 32.2% of industry profits. Because their combined earnings were higher than the industry’s total earnings as a result of many vendors losing money in Q4, Apple and Samsung mathematically accounted for more than 100% of the industry’s earnings.

A year ago, Apple accounted for 77.8% of mobile phone industry profits, followed by Samsung with 26.1%, McCourt said.

“It remains unclear to us where any non-Chinese vendor outside of Apple and Samsung will obtain the profits necessary to re-invest in the business,” McCourt said. “The mobile device market continues to look like an Apple and Samsung market in the developed world, with Chinese-based vendors continuing to take share in emerging markets.”

The mobile phone market has been seeing a lot of deal-making lately among the also-rans.

Microsoft (MSFT) is set to close its acquisition of Nokia’s (NOK) handset business later this quarter. It announced the $7.2 billion purchase on Sept. 3.

China’s Lenovo cut a deal last month to buy Motorola Mobility from Google (GOOG). The acquisition will make Lenovo a major player in the global smartphone market and strengthen its presence in North America, Latin America and Europe.

In December , Canadian smartphone maker BlackBerry (BBRY) signed a five-year device development and manufacturing deal with contract manufacturer Foxconn. The initial focus of the partnership is the development of a consumer smartphone for Indonesia and other fast-growing markets in early 2014.

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