Decades before he founded Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Co., Morris Chang was present at the creation of modern Silicon Valley. He reminisced at an event this April about being at an industry conference with Gordon Moore and Robert Noyce in 1958, 10 years before they started Intel Corp. The three men attended sessions all day, let the beer flow at dinner, and sang at the top of their lungs all the way back to their hotel, according to Chang. “We felt favored by the gods,” he said.
Moore and Noyce’s company went on to become one of Silicon Valley’s most legendary institutions before stumbling in recent years. It’s Chang’s TSMC that now seems like the blessed one, the result of his early embrace of an untested business model and deft execution that’s made TSMC the leader in the most advanced types of semiconductors on the market today. It dominates the smartphone sector, and its chips are in everything from cars to fighter jets. The Covid-19 pandemic further cemented its dominance. TSMC’s 2020 revenue was $45.5 billion, a 31% increase from the year before, and its adjusted net income of $17.3 billion dwarfed its profits from any previous year. The company is now worth about $590 billion, more than two and a half times Intel’s market value.
The global chip shortage has added a new layer of political sensitivity to TSMC’s business. The company does most of its production domestically, an arrangement Taiwan is eager to maintain. But the world’s biggest economies are feeling increasingly vulnerable to supply chain shocks. American, European, Japanese, and Korean officials have called on TSMC since late 2020, angling to persuade the company to serve their national interests. Simultaneously, the U.S. and China are planning to invest in domestic production to reduce their reliance on foreign suppliers. On May 5 the European Commission also laid out plans to build up its ability to design and manufacture advanced semiconductors.
TSMC has an enormous head start, and the barriers to entry are very high. Still, it faces increased competition from Samsung Electronics Co., which is spending $116 billion on its next-generation chip business, and Intel, which plans to regain its footing by investing $20 billion on its own effort.
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