Corning Looks to Break the Gorilla Glass Ceiling

Corning Looks to Break the Gorilla Glass Ceiling


Can a gorilla get the monkey off of Corning’s (GLW) stock?

That’s certainly what the venerable 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, introduced as a tough and scratch-resistant glass that makers 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 Corning. But at the same time, the company slashed its forecast for sales of the original Gorilla Glass, predicting sales would fall 25 percent over previous year’s levels, compared to its previous outlook for a 15 percent decline.

Will a new version of Gorilla Glass be enough to revive the company’s earnings, not to mention its stock price? Since Corning only unveiledthe product to potential customers 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-light weight 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 (stubbornly high unemployment rates, 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 to them that these gadgets are also of higher quality.

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

The company is scheduled to report its fourth-quarter earnings January 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 – may provide the impetus that’s required to revive the company’s fortunes.