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.

 

 

 

 

 

Intel (INTC) and ARM Holdings (ARMH)

At its Developer Forum yesterday, INTC announced that it is opening its cutting-edge fabs to manufacture chips that employ ARMH designs created by third parties.  So, as at least part of its business, INTC intends to become a foundry like TSMC.

(An aside: despite its glitzy style, it’s much harder to find information about the move on INTC’s website than on ARMH’s.  I don’t know whether this has any significance, but it’s the sort of odd fact that rattles around in a security analyst’s head until an answer can be found.  Is it me?  Is INTC more interested in sizzle than steak?  Is INTC’s IR effort still mired in the mindset of the former regime?…)

I’m not sure what the total significance of this move is, but at the very least:

–TSMC, the premier foundry, a Taiwanese company, trades at about a 17x price earnings multiple.  INTC now trades at about the same PE, although it has typically traded at a lower rating than TSMC in the past.  In contrast, ARMH trades at about 70x, a PE that I think must be unsustainably high, even though ARMH has managed to do so for years.

For my money, INTC’s fabs are better than TSMC’s.  Making loads of ARM chips for others will likely not lower INTC’s pe ratio.  Arguably, as the foundry business expands, INTC’s pe will rise.

–in every generation, the size of chips shrinks while the cost of a next generation fab rises. As a result, the amount of output that a fab must have to be able to operate profitably increases, while the penalty for having too little output goes up as well.

The ARMH partnership signals, I think, that INTC believes that to maintain its manufacturing edge, it must accept manufacturing orders from outside parties.

 

More tomorrow.

 

 

 

 

TSMC’s 28 nanometer problems: significance

Rumors have been swirling for some time in tech circles about difficulties the Taiwanese foundry, Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Company (TSMC), is having in bringing its latest cutting-edge chip fabrication lines into full production.  The stories were confirmed when QCOM warned in its latest earnings conference call that over the next quarter or two it would be unable to supply customers with all the most advanced chips they wanted. (Interestingly, in its quarterly earnings call, AAPL said it would be unaffected because it isn’t using 28 nm chips.)

Why is this important?

background

1.  For many semiconductor chips, the history of their manufacture is one of constant attempts to make more complex and faster speed, but also smaller, less power-hungry and cooler output.  One of the main ways of accomplishing all but the first of these goals has been to shrink the spacing between the lines of the chip patterns written onto silicon.

2.  A nanometer is a billionth of a meter.   The 28 nanometer spacing that TSMC is having trouble with is, therefore, a distance between lines of 28 billionths of an inch.

3.  About twenty years ago, the foundry–or third-party manufacturing–business began to come into prominence, as several positive factors for that industry converged.  The increasing complexity of semiconductor “fabs” meant that it cost $3 billion to build one.  Even worse, a fab churned out $7+ billion in output, far beyond the sales of all but the largest companies.  At the same time, a generation of ambitious chip designers wanted to break away from stodgier established firms and develop chip designs on their own. Many focused on customizing templates provided by ARM Holdings (ARMH).

4.  The unquestioned leader in the foundry arena is TSMC.

a paradigm shift in the offing?

There are two big integrated semiconductor designer/fabricators left–INTC and Samsung.  Neither is having fabrication problems.  INTC is beginning to produce 22nm chips in volume, and promises 14 nm for 2013.  In addition, it is using a new production technique that it calls “3-D,” that gets an unusually large benefit from its current linewidth shrink.  Most important, in my view, is that the company seems increasingly concerned with providing customers with products they want, rather than just the latest engineering tour de force.

Samsung already provides foundry services to others–it builds many AAPL chips, for example.  And INTC’s mammoth capital spending campaign of 2011-12 has analysts asking–and the company denying–that it intends to offer similar foundry services in the future.

my thoughts

ARMH, which has–with justification–been an immense market outperformer as the one-stop-shopping way to play the mobile device chips that the design firms/foundry model has been churning out.  But the stock (at 55x historic eps) is down about 20% over the past year, a time when INTC shares (12x) is up by 25%.  Over the same period, Samsung Electronics (5930.KS) (15x) is up 50%.

Yes, the issue with ARMH may just be the high PE multiple.  And, yes, Samsung isn’t just chips.  It’s a force in smartphones and dominant in TVs.  And it trades in a market that marches to its own drummer.  But I think the market is saying that the old integrated model has more going for it than the consensus appreciates.  I also think the market is right.

TSMC’s fabrication difficulties may be the trigger that gets a wider group of investors to focus on the change.