Trump and TSMC (ii)

Over the weekend The Economist published an article about the administration’s attack on Huawei, denying Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Company (TSMC) the use of US intellectual property in making chips for the Chinese telecom firm. The article basically paralleled my post from the 18th.  And it concluded that the ban could easily end up hurting the US far more than China.  In other words, it’s vintage Trump.

Although I didn’t mention it a week ago, I think it’s interesting to observe the behavior of the US companies affected by the initial order, which prevented them from supplying US-made chips to Huawei.

A basic fact about chip manufacturing is that although the output comes from gigantic, multi-billion dollar factories, the chips themselves are tiny and weigh next to nothing.  Output can easily and cheaply be shipped anywhere.  So plants don’t need to be located near customers.  They are highly automated, so no need for a large nearby workforce, either.  The key variables in locating a fab: areas where there are no earthquakes and where government tax breaks and subsidies are the highest.

Anyway, US firms continued to supply Huawei as usual after the initial directive, just from non-US facilities.

 

My point isn’t about administration ineptitude in taking months to realize this elementary workaround.  It’s that the chipmakers acted as businessmen.  They did what they thought was best for the long-term survival and prosperity of their firms.  Logically, it’s what they should have done as stewards of other peoples money.  More important, it’s what they did do.  That is, we have a reason to think that they will continue in this manner–to at least plan to put their operations out of the reach of Washington.  In addition, they will presumably pressure their suppliers of capital equipment–the semiconductor production equipment makers, some of which are heavily concentrated in the US–to do likewise.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Trump and Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing (TSMC)

Note:  the post just before this has a brief description of TSMC.

new restrictions on TSMC

Last week the Trump administration announced that foreign users of American-made semiconductor design software or production equipment will need permission from Washington to use these to fashion chips for Chinese telecom company Huawei, the world leader in 5-G wireless technology.

At the same time, TSMC announced that it will be opening a new $12 billion fab in Arizona in 2024, its second in the US.  No details yet on why, although presumably Washington is footing the bill.

my thoughts

Huawei is TSMC’s second-largest customer, after Apple.  60% of TSMC’s output goes to the US, 20% to China.

I’m a fan of TSMC as a company but not of TSM as a stock.  This is because I don’t have any edge in evaluating TSM.  I find Taiwanese accounting opaque and I believe a ton of local knowledge is needed to be successful in sizing up that market.  While the latter is true just about everywhere, Taiwan is, for me, an extreme case.

I wonder how this new Trump rule can/will be enforced.

What would I do if I were TSMC?  I’d see if I could rearrange assembly lines to avoid making Huawei chips using US-sourced machines.  My ultimate goal, however, would have to be to minimize the threat to my business by transitioning away from US equipment suppliers.  This might mean giving extra assistance to Japanese or EU companies, or encouraging technology transfer to develop Chinese alternatives.  It could mean moving advanced production equipment to foundries on the mainland to supply Huawei from there–making clear this output is not coming from Taiwan.  I’d probably be figuring I’d shed current generation US-made equipment I already own by moving it to the new US foundry.

If I were a current US supplier to TSMC?  If I wanted to keep TSMC business, I’d be starting to figure how to shift at the very least that part of my operations out of the US.  The same if I were a US-based maker of semiconductor design tools.

 

I think this will end up being another aspect of the “chaotic disaster” that is the Trump economic policy.  In this case, though, the purpose of the move appears solely to be to deflect attention from Trump’s worst-in-the-world response to COVID-19, in support of his lie that somehow not his bungling but Beijing and/or the Obama administration are responsible for the unnecessary deaths of tens of thousands of Americans.

I continue to think that Trump and his enablers in government and the media are doing enormous damage to the long-term economic prospects of the US.  What strikes me most about the developing TSMC situation, however, doesn’t have much directly to do with the stock market.  It’s that Trump et al are concerned only about covering up what they’ve done; their cynical strategy is to lie and to distract by doing more harm elsewhere.  There isn’t the slightest hint of remorse for what they’ve done nor sympathy for the relatives of the death.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing (TSMC): background

what TSMC is

In the early days of semiconductors, chip-making firms tended to be vertically integrated, meaning the companies that designed semiconductors also manufactured them in their own plants.

That changed as the semiconductor industry began to expand rapidly in the early 1990s, for several related reasons:

–chip designs became progressively more specialized and complex, putting increased focus on the design process

–the cost of building chip fabrication plants to manufacture newer, higher-specification, designs rose exponentially, putting them out of reach for all but the biggest firms, and

–TSMC opened in 1987 as a third-party manufacturer, allowing dedicated design shops to set up on their own and still be able to have their designs fabricated.  The design business, something at which Americans have excelled, has flowered since.

Today, TSMC is the most advanced chip manufacturer in the world, and by far the best third-party fabricator, matched only by Samsung, an integrated firm, and maybe Intel.

 

semiconductor equipment makers

Today’s semiconductor fabs are extremely expensive.  TSMC has just agreed to build a new fab in Arizona, for example.  The cost:  $12 billion.  (More on this in the accompanying post)  The equipment inside, the most advanced pieces of which can cost hundreds of millions of dollars, comes from a small number of specialized machinery firms, which are located mostly in the US, Japan or the EU.  Because of the complexity of semiconductor manufacturing and the expense and long lead times involved in developing and testing new equipment, there tend to be very close cooperative research and development relationships between the fabs and their equipment manufacturers.

 

foundries are the future…

…absent some revolutionary change in computer technology.  A decade ago, when I was more up-to-date on semiconductors, a state-of-the-art fab cost about $4 billion.  Operated efficiently, it would churn out, say, $7 billion worth of output.  Both figures are out of reach for most firms.  Hiring a trusted third party to manufacture your designs is the easiest way to go.  Although the ratio of sales to assets has shrunk since I was better informed, the absolute numbers have risen a lot.

 

 

 

 

 

once the worst has passed–Instacart

It’s probably not too soon to start imagining what changes there will be in daily life once the coronavirus is under control.

home food delivery

Online ordering through Whole Foods or Amazon has been impossible.  The wait for a Costco delivery slot has been two weeks+   …until yesterday, when suddenly (I hadn’t looked for a while) slots for same-day as well as every day for the next week were available.  Everything I ordered was in stock–delivered three hours later  …another change.

To me this suggests that panic buying has subsided.

Instacart

What really caught my eye is Instacart, which powers many food delivery services.  Not in a way that makes me itching to invest, though.  The markup on the food was 26%, after including a 5% tip.  That’s a lot, I think.  For a family of four that spends $1000 a month on food, Instacart would cost an extra $3000+ a year.  During a pandemic, this is probably not an issue for most people.  But in normal times, this seems pretty steep to me.

I don’t think home delivery will go away.  But it seem to me that potential new competitors have lots of room to undercut Instacart’s markup.  Also, it would seem to me that delivery from centralized warehouses is inherently less costly than hiring someone to shop in a supermarket in your place.

a surprisingly hardy breed

A caveat–two, actually:  I’m not an expert on supermarkets; grocery is, to me, a weird and wacky industry, with greater staying power than I would ever have imagined.  My town, for example, offers only a number of very dated, inefficient food stores.  A national chain has been trying to build a superstore for over twenty years on commercially zoned land it bought from a department store moving to a nearby mall.   Protests by “citizens’ committees” funded by the incumbent grocers have blocked redevelopment, as I understand the situation, despite the deterioration of the neighborhood as small businesses in need of an anchor have left.

The economics of physical grocery stores is also more complex than I would have thought–all mixed up with payments from manufacturers for premium space, the role of house brands, ancillary services like banking or a pharmacy…

Anyway, this is to say that supermarkets may be harder to kill than it seems on the surface (just look at department stores, which have been dying for almost fifty years).

 

oil at $10 a barrel

In my early stock market days, one of my bosses sent me on a tour of commodity-trading centers to get me up to speed on palm oil.  This was so I would understand the plantation stocks in Malaysia.  I mentioned to one head of trading I spoke with that my trip was part of a months-long project.  He looked at me like I was an idiot and slowly (so that even I could understand) explained that commodities were all about gut instinct and decisive action.  He hired good high school athletes, not scholars.   A classic jock vs. nerd confrontation.

This is to say that I’m not a commodities expert.  So maybe you should take my comments about crude oil with a grain of salt.  Anyway,

–crude for May delivery plunged over the weekend to right around $10.  On Friday April 3rd a barrel was going for $28+

–the main reason is that oil production is still miles ahead of oil use and there’s no easy way to store excess crude oil output

–this is an epic low in inflation-adjusted terms.  Saudi crude sold for less than $3 a barrel in dollars of the day in the early 1970s and rose to close to $30 in 1979-80, before plunging to $8 (about $27 in today’s dollars) in the recession that followed

–there would be an arbitrage opportunity if there were storage, since crude for August delivery is trading just under $30

–this is where my not knowing oil trading hurts:  I would have expected that future months would have collapsed in line with the current month.  I read this as traders thinking the May situation is a temporary blip, but I really don’t know

–for many years natural gas has sold at a substantial discount to crude, on a heating value basis.  Today they’re roughly equal.

my stock market take

The oil market is saying this is a temporary blip.  I’m not so sure.  But I don’t know.  And the energy sector is so small that I don’t need to do any more than observe.  So I’m going to sit on my hands.

If it persists, this situation is very bad for third-world countries like Venezuela or Russia that are radically dependent on oil.  It’s also not good for the oil countries of the Middle East, which have similarly one-dimensional economies.  They can likely continue to produce at a profit even at today’s price, but I’d expect that their governments would be forced to begin to liquidate their foreign investments as budget deficits soar.  This could have a negative effect on global stock and bond markets.

The largest effect on the US is a redistribution of wealth away from the big hydrocarbon-producing states to the consuming ones.  In theory, this should be an overall wash.  But since there’s very little discretionary driving going on, I think it’s a mild negative.

The price fall is good for the EU and most of Asia.

The US stock market is flattish, despite the oil price.  Both NASDAQ and the Russell 2000 are up slightly, suggesting that neither industries of the future and small business will be hurt by lower oil.  Even the Dow, which is showing its deep roots in industries of the past, is only down by about a percent.

An addendum (stuff I just found out):  the May crude contract expires tomorrow.  The holder is required to take physical delivery of 1,000 barrels/contract.  The price shows virtually no one wants to do so.  Apparently, it’s not clear whether storage will be available on settlement date.

contract closing:  the May crude oil contract closed today at minus $37+, meaning that the seller had to pay the buyer $37,000 to shoulder the burden of taking delivery of the 1,000 barrels each contract represents.  The buyer gets the oil plus the money.