Dead on arrival: Ameriški polprevodniški dizaster

Bidenove sanje o skorajšnji ameriški prevladi v proizvodnji čipov na domačih tleh, so propadle, še preden so uspele poleteti. Vzporedno in navkljub visokoletečim ciljem ob lansiranju zakona o spodbujanju proizvodnje polprevodnikov in kljub predvisenim subvencijam v višini 280 milijard dolarjev, se je prodaja ameriških “dizajnerjev čipov” sesula, tržna kapitalizacija 30 največjih pa je upadla za 1,500 milijard dolarjev. Tudi perspektive niso rožnate, saj ameriški protekcionistični ukrepi (prepoved izvoza čipov in opreme za proizvodnjo čipiv v Kitajsko) škodijo predvsem ameriškim dizajnerjem čipov, ki izgubljajo največji trg, in koristijo le Kitajski, ki pospešeno ne samo razvija najbolj sofisticirane čipe (5 in celo 3 nm), ampak tudi pospešeno gradi kapacitete za proizvodnjo čipov ter opremo za njihovo proizvodnjo.

In the spring it was easy to be dreamy about America’s chip industry. The pandemic-induced semiconductor crunch had proved just how crucial chips were to modern life. Demand was still rising for all sorts of chip-powered technology, which these days is most of it. Investors were less gloomy on chips than on other tech, which was taking a stockmarket beating. The CHIPS act was making its way through Congress, promising to plough subsidies worth $52bn into the domestic industry, in order to reduce America’s reliance on foreign fabs and support projects like Intel’s Ohio factory.

Half a year later the dreams look nightmarish. Demand for silicon appears to be falling as quickly as it had risen during the pandemic. In late September Micron, an Idaho-based maker of memory chips, reported a 20% year-on-year fall in quarterly sales. A week later AMD, a Californian chip designer, slashed its sales estimate for the third quarter by 16%. Within days Bloomberg reported that Intel plans to lay off thousands of staff, following a string of poor results that are likely to continue when it presents its latest quarterly report on October 27th. Since July a basket of America’s 30 or so biggest chip firms have cut revenue forecasts for the third quarter from $99bn to $88bn. So far this year more than $1.5trn has been wiped from the combined market value of American-listed semiconductor companies (see chart).

The chip industry is notoriously cyclical at the best of times: the new capacity built in response to rising demand takes several years to materialise, by which time the demand is no longer white-hot. In America this cycle is now being turbocharged by the government. The chips act, which became law in August to cheers from chip bosses, is stimulating the supply side of the semiconductor business just as the Biden administration is stepping up efforts to stop American-made chips and chipmaking equipment from going to China, dampening demand for American products in the world’s biggest semiconductor market.

Whether or not it makes strategic sense for America to bring more chip production home and to hamstring its geopolitical rival with export bans, the combination of more supply and less demand is a recipe for trouble. And if the American policies speed up China’s efforts to “resolutely win the battle in key core technologies”, as President Xi Jinping affirmed in a speech to the Communist Party congress on October 16th, they could give rise to powerful Chinese competitors. Field of dreams? It is enough to keep you awake in terror at night.

At the same time, prospects for offloading the resulting chips are darkening, especially for American firms, as a result of America’s tightening controls on exports to China. Many American firms count the Asian giant, which imported $400bn-worth of semiconductors last year, as their biggest market. Intel’s Chinese sales made up $21bn of its overall revenues of $79bn last year. Nvidia said that an earlier round of restrictions, which limited sales of advanced data-centre chips to Chinese customers and to Russia after its invasion of Ukraine, would cost it $400m in third-quarter sales, equivalent to 6% of its total revenues.

American chip bosses now fear that China could retaliate, further restricting their firms’ access to its vast market. It is already redoubling efforts to nurture domestic champions such as smic (in logic chips) and ymtc (in memory), as well as domestic toolmakers, that could one day challenge America’s historic silicon supremacy. The result could be a diminished American industry with less global clout and more capacity than it knows what to do with. That is a shaky foundation on which to build America’s future. ■

Vir: The Economist

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