The Geopolitics Of Chips
Bloomberg Businessweek|March 08, 2021
Taiwan and South Korea have amassed an uncomfortable degree of market power
Cristina Lindblad

There’s nothing like a supply shock to illuminate the tectonic shifts in an industry, laying bare the accumulations of market power that have accrued over years of incremental change. That’s what’s happened in the $400 billion semiconductor industry, where a shortage of certain kinds of chips is shining a light on the dominance of South Korean and Taiwanese companies.

Demand for microprocessors was already running hot before the pandemic hit, fueled by the advent of a host of new applications, including 5G, self-driving vehicles, artificial intelligence, and the internet of things. Then came the lockdowns and a global scramble for computer displays, laptops, and other work-from-home gear.

Now a resulting chip shortage is forcing carmakers such as Daimler, General Motors, and Ford Motor to dial back production and threatens to wipe out $61 billion in auto industry revenue in 2021, according to estimates by Alix Partners. In Germany, the chip crunch is becoming a drag on the economic recovery; growth in China and Mexico might get dinged, too. The situation is spurring the U.S. and China to accelerate plans to boost their domestic manufacturing capacity.

The technological prowess and massive investment required to produce the newest 5-nanometer chips (that’s 15,000 times slimmer than a human hair) has cemented the cleavage of the industry into two main groups: those that own their fabrication plants and those that hire contract manufacturers to make the processors they design. South Korean and Taiwanese companies figure prominently in the first camp. “South Korea and Taiwan are now primary providers of chips like OPEC countries once were of oil,” says Ahn Ki-hyun, a senior official at the Korea Semiconductor Industry Association. “They don’t collaborate like OPEC. But they do have such powers.”

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