Morgan Stanley
  • Thoughts on the Market Podcast
  • May 11, 2023

Are PCs on the Rebound?


Welcome to Thoughts on the Market. I'm Erik Woodring. Morgan Stanley's U.S. IT Hardware Analyst. Along with my colleagues, bringing you a variety of perspectives, today I'll discuss why we're getting bullish on the personal computer space. It's Thursday, May 11th, at 10 a.m. in New York.

PC purchases soared during COVID, but PCs have since gone through a once in a three decades type of down cycle following the pandemic boom. Starting in the second half of 2021, record pandemic driven demand reversed, and this impacted both consumer and commercial PC shipments. Consequently, the PC total addressable market has contracted sharply, marking two consecutive double digit year-over-year declines for the first time since at least 1995.

But after a challenging 18 months or so, we believe it's time to be more bullish on PCs. The light at the end of the tunnel seems to be getting brighter as it looks like the PC market bottomed in the first quarter of 2023.

Before I get into our outlook, it's important to note that PCs have historically been a low growth or no growth category. In fact, if you go back to 2014, there was only one year before the pandemic when PCs actually grew year-over-year, and that was 2019, at just 3%. Despite PCs' low growth track record and the recent demand reversal, our analysis suggests the PC addressable market can be structurally higher post-COVID. So at face value, we're making a bit of a contrarian bullish call.

This more structural call is based on two key points. First, we estimate that the PC installed base, or the number of pieces that are active today, is about 15% larger than pre-COVID, even excluding low end consumer devices that were added during the early days of the pandemic that are less likely to be upgraded going forward.

Second, if you assume that users replace their PCs every four years, which is the five year pre-COVID average, that about 65% of the current PC installed base or roughly 760 million units is going to be due for a refresh in 2024 and 2025. This should coincide with the Windows 10 End of Life Catalyst expected in October 25 and the 1 to 3 year anniversary of generative A.I. entering the mainstream, both which have the potential to unlock replacement demand for more powerful machines. Combining these factors, we estimate that PC shipments can grow at a 4% compound annual growth rate over the next three years. Again, in the three years prior to COVID, that growth rate was about 1%. So we think that PCs can grow faster than pre-COVID and that the annual run rate of PC shipments will be larger than pre-COVID.

Importantly though, what drives our bullish outlook is not the consumer, as consumers have a fairly irregular upgrade pattern, especially post-pandemic. We think the replacements and upgrades in 2024 and 2025, will come from the commercial market with 70% of our 2024 PC shipment growth coming from commercial entities. Commercial entities are much more regular when it comes to upgrades and they need greater memory capacity and compute power to handle their ever expanding workloads, especially as we think about the potential for A.I. workloads at the edge.

To sum up, we're making a somewhat contrarian call on the PC market rebound today, arguing that one key was the bottom and that PC companies should outperform in the next 12 months following this bottom. But then beyond 2023, we are making a largely commercial PC call, not necessarily a consumer PC call, and believe that PCs have brighter days ahead, relative to the three years prior to the pandemic.

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While personal computer sales were on the decline before the pandemic, signs are pointing to an upcoming boost.