SEOUL (Reuters) - LG Display, the world's No.2 LCD flat screen maker, warned of lower shipments and weaker screen prices after posting its first loss in seven quarters, as it battles weak demand from television makers.
The battered liquid crystal display (LCD) sector is slowly recovering, spurred by expectations of robust demand for tablet devices, but weak sales growth of computers and televisions will continue to keep earnings under pressure, analysts said.
"TV demand appears to be weaker than expected in China and the United States. TV prices continued to fall in January, signaling that TV makers were not confident about demand yet," said Kim Young-il, fund manager at Korea Investment Trust Management, which owns LG Display shares.
"The LCD market will bottom out in the first quarter, but the strength of the rebound would be weak. The recovery will be delayed," Kim added.
LG Display, a key panel supplier for Apple's hot-selling iPhone and iPad, recently scored a major breakthrough with a deal to resume TV panel supply for Sony, which switched to sector leader Samsung Electronics Co six years ago for flat screen purchases.
With falling panel prices and weak demand threatening profit growth, however, LG Display will be hard pressed this year to keep up with bigger rival Samsung, which is planning a 10.8 trillion won ($9.6 billion) investment in LCD and next-generation AMOLED (active matrix organic light-emitting diode) display.
"If you compare LG Display with Samsung, I would say Samsung is still in a better position to ride a recovery because of its economies of scale and a strong brand," said Andrew Deng, an analyst at Taiwan International Securities.
Compared with Samsung, a monopolistic supplier of AMOLED display, LG has just started small-scale production of the advanced screen, which is in a severe short supply due to its popularity with high-end smartphones, and considered as future television display to replace LCD.
BNP Paribas estimates the $100 billion LCD TV industry had already peaked last year and will shrink by 3-4 percent annually, giving way to new displays such as AMOLED, as LCD did with bulky tubes a decade ago.
LG Display, which kicked off earnings for major Asian LCD makers ahead of Samsung's on January 28 and AU Optronics' on Jan 27, expected its LCD shipment will drop by high single digit percentage in the first quarter from the previous quarter.
It forecast a slower price fall in LCD TV panel, while prices of notebook and computers were seen stable.
LCD TV sales growth will fall 13 percent to 215 million units this year after a 31 percent rise in 2010 and show the first ever revenue decline due to falling prices, according to research firm DisplaySearch.
Large-sized TV flat screen prices have already dropped by a third from its March peak and the sector has swung back to an oversupply situation due to weaker-than-expected demand growth.
That's a big concern for LG Display, run by Chief Executive Kwon Young-soo, since TV panels generate more than half of its revenue.
Media-friendly Kwon frequently talks of his desire to become No.1 in LCD and unveiled a new 3D technology this month in Las Vegas during the Consumer Electronics Show, in a measure of confidence to challenge sector leader Samsung and prop up margins with premium displays.
LG Display reported on Friday its October-December operating loss was 386.9 billion won ($344.2 million), worse than a consensus forecast for a 275.3 billion won loss according to Thomson Reuters I/B/E/S.
According to StarMine's SmartEstimate, which places more weight on recent forecasts by top-rated analysts, LG Display was expected to report 405 billion won of operating loss.
In December, LG Display, Taiwan's Chimei Innolux and three other firms, were fined a total of 649 million euros ($873.4 million) by EU regulators for fixing LCD prices. LG was hit by a 215 million euro ($289.3 million) penalty, which partly caused the quarterly loss.
Shares of LG Display, which counts Apple, LG Electronics Inc, Philips and Toshiba Corp among its major customers, have fallen nearly 5 percent over the past three months, lagging a 14 percent gain in the wider market.
The shares closed down 1.7 percent ahead of the earnings results, in line with the broader market's 1.7 percent drop.
Additional reporting by HyunJoo Jin in SEOUL, Baker Li in TAIPEI and Arada Kultawanich in BANGKOK; Editing by Muralikumar Anantharaman