Why Biden can’t fix the semiconductor shortage

·Senior Columnist
·7 分鐘文章

President Biden has plans to address many long-standing issues, such as climate change, wealth inequality, unaffordable health care, and housing shortages. But he’s been unable to address a problem that is holding back the U.S. economy in real-time, right now: the global shortage of semiconductors, key processors in thousands of consumer and industrial products.

A variety of factors conspired with the coronavirus pandemic to create more demand for semiconductors than manufacturers can meet. The shortfall has slammed the car industry, forcing manufacturers including Ford (F), General Motors (GM) and Chrysler to halt production of some of their most popular models. The pace of U.S. car sales in August was the lowest in 15 months, largely because carmakers can’t produce all the vehicles consumers want to buy.

Some video-game consoles are impossible to find. Appliances have chips, too, and there are delays in deliveries of refrigerators, microwaves, and washing machines. Apple (AAPL) has said chip shortages could affect the availability of iPhones this fall. The shortages are depressing economic output and forcing economists to lower their growth expectations for the rest of 2021. They’re also pushing prices up, contributing to inflation that now stands at 5.4%.

Biden is fully aware of the problem. A June White House report on supply chain vulnerabilities identified semiconductors as one of four priority areas where the U.S. must develop new domestic capacity. But that report acknowledged that “the private sector must take the lead in addressing the shortage” and identified the government’s role as one of assisting. Meanwhile, manufacturers such as Intel (INTC) and Micron (MU) are extremely careful about adding new production capacity, which is expensive and requires frequent retooling. The chip business also endures boom-bust cycles that can brutalize producers that end up with overcapacity during a downturn. For manufacturers, tight supply, including shortages, is better than over-investing and facing steep losses in the future.  

Yet another U.S. business that went overseas

Like other industries, the semiconductor business grew up in America and migrated overseas. American firms still account for roughly half of all global sales of semiconductors. But giants such as Intel, Micron, Broadcom (AVGO), Qualcomm (QCOM) and Texas Instruments (TXN) now produce some of their chips overseas or contract out production to overseas producers. The semiconductor industry says the portion of chips made in the U.S. has fallen from 37% in 1990 to about 12% today. There are still 20 fabrication plants, or “fabs,” producing the most common chips in the U.S., with production centered in California, Texas, Oregon, and Arizona. But South Korea, Taiwan, and Japan all have more global share than the U.S., and China is right behind.

U.S. President Joe Biden delivers holds a semiconductor chip as he speaks prior to signing an executive order, aimed at addressing a global semiconductor chip shortage, in the State Dining Room at the White House in Washington, U.S., February 24, 2021. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst     TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
U.S. President Joe Biden delivers holds a semiconductor chip as he speaks prior to signing an executive order, aimed at addressing a global semiconductor chip shortage, in the State Dining Room at the White House in Washington, U.S., February 24, 2021. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst

It’s a familiar story. Costs related to labor and regulatory compliance are higher in the U.S. than overseas. Plus, foreign governments subsidize semiconductor production much more than in the U.S. A 2020 study by Boston Consulting Group and the Semiconductor Industry Association claims the 10-year cost of a chip fabrication plant in the U.S. is 30% higher than in Taiwan, South Korea, and Singapore, and as much as 50% higher than the cost in China.

The U.S. chip industry wants $50 billion in federal subsidies to make domestic chip manufacturing cost-competitive with overseas production. It might get it. In June, the Senate passed the CHIPS Act, in a rare bipartisan vote. The legislation would provide $52 billion in federal subsidies through 2027 for the production of chips on U.S. soil. The biggest incentives are tax breaks, plus Washington would fund costly research and match state and local incentives for building high-tech fabs.

If the House passes the CHIPS Act and President Biden signs it — which he says he will — it will help fund the construction of 19 new fabs in the U.S., according to industry analysis, and help create 280,000 new jobs, many of them high-paying tech positions. Without the funding, the same analysis shows the U.S. share of new semiconductor capacity could drop to 6% by 2030.

But that won’t help with the current shortage. “It takes three to four years to put a fab together,” says Pedro Pacheco, senior research director at the Gartner Group. “That’s not going to solve the microchip crisis. There’s really not a lot that can be done to solve this crisis in terms of building capacity. It takes too long until capacity can be available.”

There are also the usual questions about subsidizing private industry with taxpayer dollars. With China aggressively subsidizing key industries, and many other nations following suit, it may well be time for the U.S. to adopt more formal industrial policy than it has in the past. But more government subsidies would still leave U.S. fabs with higher labor and regulatory costs than competitors based elsewhere, and there’s no guarantee U.S. automakers and other domestic manufacturers would prefer U.S.-made chips.

“Manufacturers care about the performance of the microchip, and obviously the cost, which is extremely important,” Pacheco says. “If you make it in the United States but it’s not cheaper or better, this will have a strong impact on their decision.” 

Government subsidies can also lead to demands for political involvement in corporate decision-making, and worse overall outcomes. Liberal Sen. Bernie Sanders, for instance, says the government should get a “piece of the action” — a share of profits — in exchange for billions in aid.

Washington has subsidized the U.S. semiconductor industry before, such as in the 1980s and 1990s, amid concern about Japan’s growing role in the market. Some industry executives argued that changes in U.S. policy meant to protect the domestic industry favored a handful of big corporations while punishing smaller firms and startups that didn’t qualify for the same level of aid. Most of the subsidies from that era have expired.

The U.S. chip industry won’t wither completely if Washington doesn’t help out. Arizona has been wooing chipmakers and the Taiwanese giant TSMC plans to build a $12 billion plant there. Intel said earlier this year it will spend $20 billion to build two new plants in Arizona. But subsidies could determine how much those facilities end up producing, and there are other risks, such as a lack of workers in the U.S. labor force that have the required tech skills.

Analysts think the current chip shortage will last well into next year and perhaps return to equilibrium by the end of 2022. So new plants that take three or four years to build won’t help. Most semiconductors are purchased through contracts manufacturers have with suppliers, so it’s not as if governments can step in and reallocate chips to favored customers or industries. With capacity maxed out everywhere, making more chips available to one sector or one nation would simply divert them from other parts of the global economy.

Smaller steps to ease the shortage

There are a couple of smaller steps Biden could take. President Trump’s trade war against China included 25% tariffs on semiconductors imported from China, which effectively made them more expensive to U.S. purchasers. Chinese semiconductors only account for about 5% of all imported chips, but the Trump tariffs still contributed to current shortages, according to trade expert Chad Bown of the Peterson Institute for International Economics.

Trump also banned the sale of American-made components, including semis, to the Chinese telecom giant Huawei. Huawei began getting chips from suppliers in Japan and South Korea that weren’t subject to the ban. China also boosted its own production of chips, to hedge against the risk of even more punitive U.S. action. U.S. chipmakers, meanwhile, lost a huge customer. All of that contributed to the disruptions occurring now. Biden could ease or repeal both of the Trump measures, and there have been indications he might.

The broader lesson, however, is that global supply chains are more vulnerable to shocks than anybody knew when big firms got accustomed to sourcing components wherever they could get them cheaply and easily. And no government can readily undo 30 years of economic evolution. Biden needs to let voters know he's working on the chip shortage, but it might be easier to lower health care costs or boost green energy and hope he gets credit for that, instead. 

Rick Newman is the author of four books, including "Rebounders: How Winners Pivot from Setback to Success.” Follow him on Twitter: @rickjnewman. You can also send confidential tips, and click here to get Rick’s stories by email.

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