U.S. administration change does not alter the status quo with China.
There has been no letup in the tense relationship between the U.S. and China, which anchors how we evaluate the sentiment shift, or lack thereof, in the tech supply ban on Chinese entities, tariffs, and the merger and acquisition (M&A) regulatory approval process. S&P Global Ratings economists believe the Biden Administration will adopt a more multilateral and predictable approach to China, yet tensions between the two countries will persist and the tariffs and export restrictions imposed by the Trump Administration will remain. U.S. and China increasingly view each other as a competitive threat on the global stage, and technology leadership is at stake. U.S. leadership in 4G technology gave rise to tech powerhouses in Apple Inc. (smartphone), Qualcomm Inc. (mobile baseband), and Broadcom Corp. (connectivity). A new battleground is brewing in areas such as 5G and other emerging technology, which we expect to lead to a new wave of global tech players such as Uber, Didi Chuxing, Waymo, Tesla, Alibaba, and Amazon Web Services.
We’ve learned that geopolitical risks can reverberate across the vast tech supply chain and cause significant economic and business disruptions to the sector. This is exemplified by the Section 301 tariffs on Chinese imports and the U.S. Department of Commerce’s export restrictions on firms on its “Entity List,” including Chinese companies Huawei Technologies, ZTE Corp., and Semiconductor Manufacturing International Corp. (SMIC).
Although many tech companies avoided disastrous outcomes amid the U.S-China trade spat over the past few years, it was not without damages. Many semiconductor firms, foundries, electronic manufacturing services providers, and component vendors lost Huawei as a major customer, which represented upwards of 15% of these companies’ total revenues.
China made its ambitions clear in the ongoing technology battle with the U.S. in 2015, when Beijing rolled out its Made in China 2025 strategic plan, which aimed to reduce the reliance of Chinese tech firms on foreign suppliers. Its China Standards 2035 plan takes it a step further and lays out its strategy for China’s government and tech companies to set global standards for advanced technologies such as 5G, internet of things (IoT), artificial intelligence (AI), clean energy, autonomous vehicles, etc.
U.S. firms could lose ground in their technology battle with China. We view the Chinese government and its domestic tech sector participants to be more aligned than their U.S. counterparts. China’s National Champion strategy, which cultivates and supports leaders in respective areas, has created tech powerhouses such as Huawei (networking infrastructure), Xiaomi Corp. (smartphone), Alibaba (e-commerce), and Didi Chuxing (ride hailing) that dominate their domestic markets and have global ambitions. We believe the Chinese government will continue to provide subsidies to support “national champions.” It is also clear there is a mutual dependence between the U.S. and China on the tech front. China’s needs for access to critical technology from U.S. suppliers, such as those in the areas of semiconductor capital equipment, chip design software and software operating systems, in order to fulfill its determinations and catch up with its more advanced peers, necessitates a certain level of openness and cooperation between the two countries. The sheer size of the Chinese economy and the sizable tech manufacturing footprint are also important factors for U.S. tech companies to consider in the context of trade relationships and market access. We view any retaliation from China on the U.S. tech sector to be largely limited as that would interfere with any transfer of intellectual property or know-how to support China’s long-term tech independence plan. Conversely, additional pressure applied by the U.S. government on Chinese tech companies will have to be treaded carefully, as the goal is not to decouple the two largest economies in the world, but rather sustain a global tech ecosystem where market access is unfettered and intellectual properties are protected.
We expect the semiconductor market to grow in the high-single-digit-percent area in 2021, continuing its long and steady upward trajectory that’s been reinforced by higher electronic content in broad end markets. Here, we discuss our views on how geopolitics enter the equation as we analyze the concentration risk within the complex semiconductor supply chain, implications from President Biden’s proposed infrastructure plan, and potential for further industry consolidation.
Semiconductor Supply Chain Shortage Exposes Risks
Turning on a ‘wafer’ is difficult.
The COVID-19 pandemic led to unpredictable events. Restarting manufacturing facilities and greasing the supply chain on short notice are challenging. Global supply chains are in a logjam, unable to meet the demand surge for technology products as the pandemic-related disruption subsides. Now technology firms making everyday products are ensnared in a widespread global supply chain shortage and unable to secure critical resources to manufacture products heavily reliant on the semiconductor industry.
The rapid economic recovery and trends such as remote work and learning fueled demand for consumer technology products and strained supply chains. For example, the personal computing market has been a strong beneficiary amid the pandemic, experiencing a renaissance in demand that the industry could not fully meet. We forecast PC unit growth of about 8% in 2021 after growing 12.9% in 2020–a market long viewed to be in secular decline before the pandemic. Conversely, other industries such as automotive, which is integrating more semiconductor content in vehicles to control electronic functions from assisted driving to digital gauges, were crowded out and global manufacturers were forced to idle capacity. Communications and computing end markets represent 50%-60% of global semiconductor demand compared to 10%-15% for automotive. Critical manufacturing resources had been committed to chips designed for products like mobile phones and computers, slowing but not upending the recovery in automotive markets.
Third-party manufacturing services become more critical as capital intensity rises.
Over the years, many semiconductor companies seeking efficiencies have adopted fab-lite operating models, transferring the costs associated with the semiconductor manufacturing process to foundries as they shrunk manufacturing footprints. Today, few semiconductor companies have in-house manufacturing though they largely employ older technologies or highly niche semiconductor products. However, fabless semiconductor designers of more mainstream advanced chips contract with third-party foundries as the rising costs for shrinking geometries (e.g., 7 nanometer, or nm, and below) using more expensive equipment like extreme ultraviolet (EUV) lithography tools become prohibitive. This dynamic partially fueled the growth in outsourcing and the decline in the number of foundries and semiconductor firms manufacturing leading-edge chips, highlighted by critical mass required to produce at high volumes, lead times often up to a year or more for capacity expansions, and capital expenditures (capex) of $15 billion-$20 billion to build leading-edge greenfield facilities. Today, only a handful of suppliers dominate a large swath of outsourced leading-edge manufacturing capacity. We expect this market structure to continue over the next few years.
While U.S. semiconductor companies still design more than 50% of the world’s semiconductors, foreign companies dominate the foundry business–about 75% of chip production capacity comes from Asia, including Taiwan, South Korea, and China. Meanwhile, the U.S. has relinquished domestic manufacturing share to about 12%, while industry forecasters expect Europe and China to increase their presence over the next decade. Still, industry titan Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Co. Ltd. (TSMC) is the leading global semiconductor foundry, representing more than half of the world’s most advanced chipmaking capacity. Its expertise and ability to invest in leading-edge technologies that power high-end mobile phones to supercomputers have earned the company’s venerable role as the preferred partner for semiconductor outsourcing. The company’s annual capital spending approaches $30 billion–a figure difficult for competitors to match without government incentives. The reliance on TSMC will continue, and overcoming the bottlenecks involved in expanding capacity like equipment procurement and customer qualification processes will contribute to the industry’s shortage problems, likely lasting into early 2022, in our view.
The industry’s old, yet new challenges.
While the industry’s shortage is not the result of the concentrated base of foundries that make critical semiconductor parts, TSMC’s and Samsung Corp.’s top positions in the foundry business surely have raised red flags and illuminated the risks of having limited alternatives for critical advanced semiconductor suppliers. Global leaders worry over tensions between Taiwan and China, as well as the on-again, off-again aggression involving North and South Korea; the semiconductor industry must confront the industry’s reliance on few foundries amid global trade wars and heightened geopolitical risks. We believe the concentration of manufacturing in areas susceptible to natural disasters coupled with international conflicts are significant vulnerabilities in the global semiconductor supply chain. This has prompted a renewed call for the industry to act.
Biden Infrastructure Plan
Creating Helpful Incentives to Produce Semiconductors (CHIPS) for America Act signals support from the U.S. government to boost domestic manufacturing capabilities.
The U.S. semiconductor industry has thrived over the past few decades without significant financial support from the federal government. The success, however, masks the growing risk that exists in the complex semiconductor supply chain–highlighted by the recent U.S.-China trade spat–the geographical concentration in semiconductor and hardware manufacturing in Asia-Pacific, especially China, as well as the heavy reliance on TSMC and Samsung as the foundry providers of the world’s most advanced semiconductor manufacturing process technology. These foreign companies’ leadership positions is the direct result of significant financial support as well as coordinated policies between their countries’ governments and the private sector for research and development (R&D) investments and manufacturing facilities.
The U.S. accounts for about 12% of global semiconductor manufacturing capacity today, down from about 37% in in 1990, according to the Semiconductor Industry Association. It will be an uphill climb for the U.S. to reestablish significant semiconductor manufacturing. Technological innovation and leadership positions are difficult to achieve and even more difficult to sustain, as evidenced by Intel Corp.’s stumbles over the last few years. Intel lost its process technology leadership and will have to partner with TSMC to take advantage of its latest process technology roadmap in order to release new products more quickly and slow potential share losses to Advanced Micro Devices Inc. (AMD). Additionally, there are fundamental differences in foundry business versus an in-house design and manufacturing model, and the ability to service many different customers on many different products at a high throughput is key to success. Although it is possible for Intel to achieve such performance levels, it is yet to be proven, while TSMC has already demonstrated this ability. Most importantly, Intel’s more diversified product portfolio now extends beyond PC microcontrollers, and into data center, AI, and graphics, potentially discouraging competitors such as Apple, AMD, Nvidia, Broadcom and others from employing Intel’s foundry services.
To improve on and strengthen U.S. leadership in chip technology, the CHIPS Act passed in January 2021 and will likely be funded as part of the proposed $2.25 billion Biden Infrastructure Plan, providing for about $50 billion of semiconductor manufacturing incentives and R&D over the next 10 years. The CHIPS Act will be critical in promoting more semiconductor manufacturing in the U.S. and will be a much-needed catalyst to upset the current economics that clearly support U.S. semiconductor firms to continue outsourcing their manufacturing activities to such foundries as TSMC and Samsung, which possess the most-advanced chip manufacturing processing technologies, significant scale and efficiencies, track records of success, and ability to offer the lowest prices.
After over 30 years of embracing the fabless model, in which semiconductor companies focus on the design and marketing of chips but outsource the manufacturing to foundries and back-end assembly and testing to other service providers, only a handful of U.S. semiconductor companies have a significant manufacturing presence in the U.S.–Intel, Micron Technology Inc., Texas Instruments Inc., and Analog Devices Inc. Intel’s logic chips and Micron’s memory chips are produced at the leading-edge nodes in state-of-the-art fabs (short for silicon wafer fabrication plants), whereas analog chips produced by Texas Instruments and Analog Devices are typically at non-leading-edge nodes and therefore have lower capex requirements. In March 2021, Intel announced it will spend $20 billion to build two new chip factories in Arizona for both internal manufacturing and foundry services with production to start around 2024, and jump-started its foundry services business by entering into a partnership with IBM to improve chip logic and packaging technologies.
Foreign firms such as TSMC, Samsung, GlobalFoundries, NXP, and Infineon Technologies AG also have fabs in the U.S. and we expect more foreign firms to be attracted to the higher receptivity of U.S. manufacturing as it provides them an avenue to diversify their manufacturing base, meet demands of their U.S. customers, and mitigate risks amid ongoing U.S.-China trade tension. Last year, TSMC announced plans to build a fab in Arizona, costing about $12 billion, to prepare for its 5nm production in 2024. More recently, Samsung is reportedly considering spending over $17 billion to build an advanced chip fab in Austin, Texas, for 3nm production ready in 2023.
We view the passage of the CHIPS Act as a first step to a much-needed concerted effort between the U.S. government and the private sector to ensure U.S. semiconductor firms remain competitive on a global scale over the longer term. The $50 billion sum is not significant when a state-of-the-art fab costs about $10 billion or more to build and equip. Emerging technologies such as 5G and artificial intelligence are already labeled as areas of national security interest and we expect the federal government to closely monitor and assess the competitive landscape as well as progress made by domestic tech firms to ensure U.S. semiconductor leadership.
Semiconductor cap equipment vendors benefit from secular growth, higher capital intensity, and diversifying manufacturing capacity.
Very specialized and sophisticated equipment and tools are required to make chips, and the U.S. has a strong foothold in the equipment market. Applied Materials Inc., Lam Research Corp., and KLA Corp. make up about 50% of global semi equipment share. Having the broadest portfolio, Applied Materials is a leader in the equipment market and in material deposition and removal. Lam Research ranks second and leads in dry etch and single wafer cleaning. Demand has been strong for advanced deposition and etch tools because of additional steps and layers required to pack more integrated circuitry onto leading edge chips that continue to shrink every couple years or so. KLA specializes in the process control segment of the wafer fabrication process and controls more than 50% of that market. Smaller chips require more meticulous inspection and strict qualifications, thus increasing the need for more advanced control tools. Outside of the U.S., Japan-based Tokyo Electron Ltd. holds over 90% of the photoresist processing segment, and Netherlands-based ASML has essentially 100% of the EUV machines used in the lithography step for the most cutting-edge chips.
The semi equipment industry enjoys very high barriers to entry and minimal substitution risk because of decades of investment and innovation. On average, foundries spend about 30%-40% of their annual revenue on routine maintenance and capacity expansion. Over the past five to seven years, capital intensity, measured as fab and equipment spending as a percentage of semiconductor sales, has increased primarily due to growing complexities in process technologies and manufacturing. Current node transitions to 7 nanometer in logic and foundries as well as 3D layering in memory chips all require additional advanced tools and services to fuel the exponential growth in semiconductor content of the digital economy.
Although we expect the semiconductor capital equipment industry to experience strong demand over the next few years, vendors may benefit somewhat disproportionately from technology transitions and the mix in wafer fab equipment spending (e.g., logic/foundries versus memory). Applied Materials and Lam Research are likely to benefit more from processes that require many deposition-and-etch steps, especially in memory markets. On the other hand, these two companies may cede some market share in logic market as chip sizes shrink to 7nm and below where the use of emerging EUV lithography technology will increase to overcome limits of traditional lithography and reduce multi-patterning processes (deposition-and-etch steps). Higher use of EUV will boost demand for ASML’s exclusive EUV technology and KLA Corp.’s metrology and defect inspection tools. As a whole, etch and deposition processes will still play critical roles in chip manufacturing.
Trade restrictions slowed but haven’t stopped semiconductor capital equipment market growth.
According to SEMI, the semiconductor capital equipment industry has had a rare three consecutive years of record-high growth, increasing 16% in 2020, followed by an estimated 15% gain this year and another 12% in 2022, raising total spending to $80 billion. This followed the U.S.-China trade dispute that started in earnest in 2018. The U.S.’ move to place export restrictions on China’s largest chip manufacturer, SMIC, has also embroiled ASML in the U.S.-China trade war, where ASML is restricted from providing its exclusive EUV tools that make leading-edge chips to SMIC. Further moves include the U.S.’ and Japan’s recently announced Competitiveness and Resilience (CoRe) partnership, which aims to protect technology and sensitive supply chains. This may be important in the effort to control technology exports, considering Japan is also home to critical semiconductor capital equipment technologies including those provided by Tokyo Electron Ltd.
A global effort to diversify chip manufacturing and increase U.S. presence is underway.
TSMC expects to spend $100 billion over the next three years, which includes spending on the new fab in Arizona to support demand in 5G, high-performance computing, AI, and automotive; Samsung plans to invest about $116 billion by 2030 for both R&D and infrastructure and another $17 billion for a new fab, also in Arizona. Intel recently announced it will incur $20 billion incremental spending for new fabs, also in Arizona and in Europe. A small portion of the amount will also be for its foundry business. We do not expect these new fabs to affect global chip output until 2023, at the earliest. While the effect on chip economics remains to be seen, expansionary initiatives present opportunities for the equipment makers over the next few years.
Our view is that spending on wafer fab equipment will continue to remain volatile, as it depends on fab expansions and node advancements, both of which could be lumpy. However, based on the plans for fab expansions and the solid semiconductor market growth trajectory, we view the risk of a material downturn in wafer fab equipment sales over the next two years to be low. Furthermore, we expect the major semiconductor equipment makers, which generate about a quarter of their total revenues from services, to benefit from growing recurring revenue from installed machine base, mitigating the cyclicality of equipment orders. In the long run, sustained regional production could bring inefficiency and tip the balance of chip supply and demand, if not properly managed by all participants. As seen in early 2010, large consolidations in fabs led to a material decline in equipment sales. Could history repeat itself? That remains to be seen. Within their current ratings, all three U.S. equipment vendors have a strong balance sheet and ample liquidity to withstand the perceived volatility in the market.
Tail End Of Large-Scale M&A Boom
There were a few large-scale M&A announcements in the semiconductor industry last year, spurred by rising capital costs to develop and manufacture leading-edge semiconductors, and suppliers seeking efficiency and scale to mitigate these challenges. Even as acquirers continue to announce deals, we believe geopolitical tensions and strained U.S.-China relations remain an overhang and could begin to discourage further large-scale semiconductor company tie-ups.
M&As that are beneficial to local customers or pose little risk to U.S. and China interests have gained quick regulatory approvals, such as Marvell Technology Inc.’s $10 billion acquisition of Inphi Corp. Conversely, deals that may appear to block China’s efforts to cultivate its semiconductor industry or potentially thwart access to scarce intellectual property and technologies have been caught in the crosshairs of the regulatory juggernaut.
Consolidation in the semiconductor capital equipment market has been fraught with challenges. For example, U.S.-based Applied Materials Inc.’s proposed $3.5 billion (up from $2.2 billion initially) acquisition of Japan-based Kokusai Electric, a supplier of technologies and tools to manufacture memory chips, failed to get Chinese regulatory approval despite already receiving U.S., Japan, and Europe regulators’ approvals, making China’s decision controversial. The deal, including its failed merger with Tokyo Electron Ltd. in 2014, joins a list of mega-deals announced over the past few years that faced U.S. and China regulatory friction and ultimately did not cross the finish line:
- In 2016, Lam Research Corp. canceled its $11 billion merger with KLA Corp. after it failed to assuage U.S. antitrust regulators.
- In 2018, because of national security risks and 5G leadership concerns, U.S. regulators nixed Singapore-based Broadcom’s $117 billion bid to acquire Qualcomm Inc.
- In 2019, Qualcomm’s proposed $38 billion acquisition of NXP Semiconductors failed to get China regulatory approval.
Indeed, government efforts to protect intellectual property (IP), ensure access to semiconductor technologies, and the stronger undertones of national protectionist postures from U.S. and China, are a harbinger of a tougher regulatory environment. In our view, this backdrop presents greater risks in closing the deals currently undergoing regulator review because of their U.S. and China exposures, critical technologies, and global reach.
|Select Mega Semiconductor Mergers (Pending)|
|Date announced||Target close by||Acquirer||Target||Transaction value|
|Oct. 27, 2020||Year-end 2021||
Advanced Micro Devices Inc.
|Sept. 14, 2020||March 2022 (18 months)||
|July 13, 2020||Summer 2021||
Analog Devices Inc.
Maxim Integrated Products Inc.
Moreover, we anticipate further government intervention may diminish prospects for global semiconductor M&A across chip designers, manufacturers, foundries, and semiconductor capital equipment makers, and hurt companies’ ability to gain scale or access key markets and technologies. For example, potential acquisition target Japan-based Kioxia Corp. (Toshiba Memory) and South Korea-based MagnaChip Semiconductor Corp. have gained regulator attention amid bids to be acquired by foreign entities and potential national security implications and IP protection concerns. Governments and their regulatory arms appear to be more cautious to transfer ownership of technologies and regulators may not approve deals if they pose significant risk to domestic industries. As a corollary, the semiconductor supply chain will seek ways to collaborate and potentially establish joint ventures to combat rising competitive and cost pressures and de-risk investment if M&A becomes a less viable option.
China’s ambition to build up its indigenous semiconductor industry may create more challenges for the market. As China aims for self-sufficiency and to produce 70% of its chip consumption by 2025, it has reduced direct foreign investment and established policies that support technology and talent development and build semiconductor manufacturing capacity. While we expect global cooperation among semiconductor companies as a more likely scenario over the long run, if these moves separate China technology and capacity from the rest of the world’s, the industry may experience bouts of supply-demand imbalances and volatile performances.
Semiconductor Volatility And Rating Implications
Over the past decade, we’ve observed that rising electronic content and the broadening of semiconductor end markets have had a dampening effect on semiconductor industry volatility and led to cycles with higher peaks as well as higher troughs. Nevertheless, we consider the semiconductor industry to be volatile because of characteristics such as long lead times from order to sales that could last as long as nine months, low visibility through the complex supply chain, and customer behaviors such as double-ordering that mask true demand visibility. Looking ahead, the semiconductor industry consolidation over the past 15 years that supported rational pricing and supply behaviors by industry participants could be nearing a pause as large-scale M&A will be more difficult to achieve. Additionally, the significant capacity increases planned by TSMC, Samsung, and Intel over the next few years appear prudent today given the strong demand we anticipate; however, any exogenous shock that diminishes demand outlook would amplify supply-demand imbalances as a result. Furthermore, the U.S. government involvement in support of domestic semiconductor manufacturing and the longer-term ambitions by China as it executes on its Made in China 2025 and China Standards 2035 strategies could lead to inefficiencies and lower profitability for the industry, especially when economics is no longer the most important decision driver. These factors will continue to keep us cautious on how long the dampening of the semiconductor industry volatility will last.
At the same time, semiconductor companies acknowledge the inherent risk in the industry and compensate such risk by having relatively conservative financial profiles. Many semiconductor companies are rated in the investment-grade category and have seen upward rating momentum over the years.
We expect the current semiconductor market uptrend to extend beyond 2021 given the strong demand across products in data center and consumer segment (PC, gaming, smartphones, tablets, wearables) while the enterprise segment is likely to improve gradually throughout the year as global economic recovery continues. The current semiconductor supply shortage has reduced inventory levels across the supply chain and we expect there to be a period of inventory replenishment supporting higher semiconductor output when demand starts to wane. It’s too early to tell which companies will emerge as winners in the next era of advanced technologies such as cloud, AI, IoT, autonomous vehicles, and smart energy. Nonetheless, we are confident the semiconductor devices will continue to proliferate and content per device will grow in the foreseeable future, which would further drive massive data creation and the need to analyze it. This bodes well for the business risk profiles of semiconductor companies we cover.
- Global Semiconductor Shortages Could Chip Away At The Auto Sector’s Recovery In 2021, Feb. 10, 2021
- Credit FAQ: Chipping Away At Intel Corp.’s Manufacturing Strategy And Credit Risk, Jan. 25, 2021
- In And Out: Computing The Impact Of Apple Chip Insourcing, Intel’s Outsourcing, Jan. 13, 2021
- Economic Nationalism: Will Biden Reset U.S.-China Relations? Dec. 3, 2020
- Global Chip Shortage Engulfs A Growing List Of Tech Players, April 20, 2021
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