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Japan Sees Peril in US Chip Hub to Counter China

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By Reuters | Updated: 18 August 2021

Japan is worried that US plans to pour billions of dollars into chip manufacturing to fend off China could finish off what’s left of a Japanese semiconductor industry that once dominated the world.

After “three lost decades”, according to Japan’s industry ministry, the country’s share of global chip manufacturing has fallen from a half to a tenth as it leaked customers to cheaper rivals and failed to maintain a lead in cutting edge production.

As China and the United States, driven by a trade war and security concerns, ramp up support for the manufacturing of chips that run everything from smartphones to missiles, officials worry Japan will be squeezed out altogether.

“We can’t just continue what we have been doing, we have to do something on a completely different level,” former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe told fellow ruling LDP party members in May at a first party meeting to discuss how the country can be a leading digital economy.

Illustrating Japan’s fear of being left out of a new technology world order, documents distributed by the Ministry of Economy Trade and Industry earlier this year showed a thick red dotted line over a bar graph pointing to the possibility of a zero chip industry share by 2030.

A major concern is the future of the country’s still world-leading firms that supply chipmakers with items such as silicon wafers, chemical films and production machinery.

Officials fear that by luring Asian chip foundry giants such as Taiwan’s Semiconductor Manufacturing Co (TSMC) to its soil, the United States could tempt these firms to follow.

“It’s possible for companies to build in Japan and export, but the closer you can be as a supplier the better, it’s easier to exchange information,” said Kazumi Nishikawa, director of the IT industry at METI.

While the shift may not come immediately, “it could happen over the long term,” he said.

The companies Nishikawa worries about include wafer makers Shin-Etsu Chemical and Sumco photoresist supplier JSR Corp and production machinery builders Screen Holdings and Tokyo Electron.

“We are always prepared to respond to policy changes in each country,” said a spokesperson for JSR, which makes light sensitive photoresist coatings used for engraving chips in Japan, Belgium and the United States.

When asked by Reuters, none of the companies said they currently plan to shift production to the United States.

Tech war

To retain them, Japan needs chip foundries that will buy their wafers, machinery, and chemicals, and will also ensure stable supplies of semiconductors for the country’s car companies and electronic device makers.

TSMC, which is looking to expand overseas amid concern about the potential vulnerability of its Taiwan operations to mainland China’s territorial ambitions, has established a research and development centre near Tokyo. It is also reviewing a plan to build a fabrication plant in Japan.

However, its biggest foreign venture by far is a $12 billion (roughly Rs. 89,140 crores) plant it is constructing in Arizona in the United States.

In a bid to keep up in the technology race, Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga’s government in June approved a strategy devised by Nishikawa’s team at METI to ensure Japan has enough chips to compete in technologies that will drive future economic growth, including artificial intelligence, high-speed 5G connectivity, and self driving vehicles.

One initiative is to turn Japan into an Asian data centre hub. Such hubs generate huge demand for semiconductors, which in turn will lure chipmakers to build plants nearby.

Spending support

The success of its industrial policy, however, will depend on money.

So far the country has allocated JPY 500 billion (roughly Rs. 33,900 crores) to reinforce technology supply chains to help companies grapple with shortages of chips and other components during the coronavirus pandemic, and to promote a shift to 5G.

That’s only a fraction of spending proposed by other countries.

“At the current level of support, it’s tough for Japan’s semiconductor industry, and we want government incentives that are comparable with elsewhere in the world,” The Japan Electronics and Information Technology Industries Association (JEITA) said in an email.

The US Senate has approved a bill authorising $190 billion (roughly Rs. 14,11,490 crores) of public money for new technology, including $54 billion (roughly Rs. 4,01,160 crores) on chips, while the European Union plans to spend EUR 135 billion (roughly Rs. 11,75,840 crores) on nurturing its own digital economy.

To equal this spending, Japan would have to earmark large sums of public money that the greying nation might otherwise spend on health and welfare. METI has yet to say how much it believes it needs.

“Given Japan’s financial situation it will be difficult to match” the United States, the EU, and China, former economic revitalisation minister, Akira Amari and leader of the LDP group looking to “make Japan number one again,” told Reuters.

© Thomson Reuters 2021

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Intel to Invest $7 Billion in New Chip-Packaging Factory in Malaysia, Creating 9,000 Jobs

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By Reuters | Updated: 16 December 2021

Intel will invest more than $7 billion (roughly Rs. 53,380 crore) to build a new chip-packaging and testing factory in Malaysia, Chief Executive Pat Gelsinger said on Thursday, expanding production in the country following a global shortage of semiconductors.

The new advanced packaging facility in Malaysia is expected to begin production in 2024, he said.

The MYR 30 billion (roughly Rs. 54,140 crore) investment is expected to create over 4,000 Intel jobs and more than 5,000 construction jobs in the country, the Malaysian government said.

“This undertaking is indeed timely given the bullish global demand driven by the chip shortages and the potential challenges arising from the recovery of the pandemic globally,” Malaysian Minister of International Trade and Industry Mohamed Azmin Ali said in a statement.

A global shortage of semiconductor chips, caused partly by a pandemic-fuelled demand for electronics and disruptions in supply chains has seen car makers cut production and delays in smartphone deliveries at companies including Apple.

Malaysia’s chip assembly industry, accounting for more than a tenth of a global trade worth over $20 billion, has warned that shortages will last at least two years.

Intel’s Gelsinger said he expected the chip shortages to last into 2023.

“Overall the semiconductor industry this year will grow more than it has in the last two to three decades. But still, the gaps are large … and I predict that the limitations of the shortages will persist into 2023,” he said.

Intel hoped to announce the next locations in the US and Europe early next year, he added.

Intel opened its first production facility outside the US at a 5-acre assembly site in the Malaysian state of Penang in 1972. By 1975, it employed about 1,000 people and had become a crucial part of the company’s manufacturing chain, its website said.

Last month, the US and Malaysia said they plan to sign an agreement by early next year towards improving transparency, resilience and security in the semiconductor and manufacturing sector supply chains.

© Thomson Reuters 2021

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US Federal Trade Commission Sues to Block Nvidia-Arm Deal

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By Reuters | Updated: 3 December 2021

The US Federal Trade Commission on Thursday sued to block US chip company Nvidia’s more than $80 billion (roughly Rs. 5,99,760 crore) planned acquisition of British chip technology provider Arm, adding to already significant global regulatory challenges of the deal.

The FTC said the proposed deal would give one of the largest chip companies control over computing technology and designs that competitors rely on to develop their own competing chips.

The deal has been widely expected to fall apart after facing opposition in the chip industry. British regulators said last month they would launch an in-depth probe of the deal, and it is also under scrutiny in the European Union.

Arm licenses its chip architecture and blueprints to major chipmakers Apple, Qualcomm, and Samsung, underpinning the global smartphone ecosystem. Arm was sold to Japan’s SoftBank in 2016.

Nvidia said it would “work to demonstrate that this transaction will benefit the industry and promote competition.”

Arm declined to comment.

The stock-heavy deal has more than doubled in value since it was announced in September 2020 as Nvidia shares have risen on the performance of its data centre business. Nvidia will owe only a $1.25 billion (roughly Rs. 9,370 crore) breakup fee if the deal does not close, and its shares closed up 2.2 percent at $321.26 (roughly Rs. 24,090) on Thursday.

“Nobody thinks the deal is going to close,” said Stacy Rasgon, an analyst with Bernstein. “The data centre story has been really playing out. The software narrative has become a bigger piece of the story. I would love to see this deal, but I don’t think they need it.”

Before Nvidia’s offer, SoftBank had planned to file for an initial public offering for Arm. While Arm’s revenue is growing briskly, rising 56.3 percent to $1.46 billion (roughly Rs. 10,945 crore) in the six months ended September 30, it is unclear whether Arm, in an IPO, would fetch anything close to the $80 billion (roughly Rs. 5,99,760 crore) in value offered by Nvidia.

That would be a new blow for the Japanese conglomerate whose Vision Fund assets sank by $10 billion (roughly Rs. 74,970 crore) last month, driven by plummeting valuations for investments in Chinese e-commerce firm Alibaba and ride-hailing service Didi Global.

The FTC, which is made up of two Republicans and two Democrats, voted 4-0 to approve the challenge to the planned merger.

‘Higher prices and less choice’

The FTC alleged “the proposed merger would give Nvidia the ability and incentive to use its control of this technology to undermine its competitors, reducing competition and ultimately resulting in reduced product quality, reduced innovation, higher prices, and less choice, harming the millions of Americans who benefit from Arm-based products.”

The FTC added the combined firm “would have the means and incentive to stifle innovative next-generation technologies, including those used to run datacentres and driver-assistance systems in cars.”

Some semiconductor firms such as MediaTek and Broadcom have voiced support for the deal. But other firms such as Qualcomm have opposed it over concerns that Nvidia would have a first look at key technologies that they depend on and could then have better insights into their future products.

Qualcomm did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Nvidia’s chief executive, Jensen Huang, made a biting comment at an industry dinner last month, saying that Qualcomm Chief Executive Cristiano Amon, who recently took the helm of an industry trade group, had proven to be a master advocate in the battle over Arm. Qualcomm had its own extensive battles with global regulators, including the FTC, which Qualcomm prevailed over after the regulator brought an antitrust lawsuit against it.

“He’s the perfect person to advocate for our industry,” Huang said from a stage as Amon sat in the audience. “I was trying to figure out, how is it possible that Cristiano knew every single regulator on the planet, and by the time I got there to tell them about my story on Arm, he was already there advocating against it?” Huang said, to stunned laughter from the crowd.

The FTC said it has cooperated closely with staff of the competition agencies in the European Union, United Kingdom, Japan, and South Korea.

© Thomson Reuters 2021

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Bosch to Invest More Than EUR 400 Million in Chip Production in Germany, Malaysia Next Year

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By Reuters | Updated: 29 October 2021

German technology group Robert Bosch has earmarked more than EUR 400 million (roughly Rs. 3,490 crore) for investments in microchip production in Germany and Malaysia next year to ease a global shortage.

A lack of chips for automakers has disrupted vehicle production around the world, with suppliers relying almost exclusively on chips from only a few manufacturers in Asia and the United States.

The largest part of Bosch’s budget will be spent on a faster expansion of its Dresden, Germany factory for 300-millimeter wafers, which the group inaugurated in June, it said in a statement on Friday.

About EUR 50 million (roughly Rs. 436 crore) will be invested at a site in Reutlingen near Stuttgart making 200-millimeter wafers, said the company, which also makes car parts and factory automation systems.

Another project to be funded will be the construction of a semiconductor testing facility in Penang, Malaysia, it added, without specifying the level of investment.

Intel, the biggest maker of processor chips for PCs and data centres, said last month it could invest up to EUR 80 billion (roughly Rs. 698 crore) in Europe over the next decade.

© Thomson Reuters 2021

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Intel Teams With Google Cloud to Develop ‘Mount Evans’, a New Class of Data Centre Chip

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By Reuters | Updated: 28 October 2021 

Intel and Alphabet’s Google Cloud on Wednesday said they have worked together to create a new category of chip that Intel hopes will become a major seller in the booming cloud computing market.

The new chip, which is called Mount Evans and will be sold to others beyond Google, reflects the way that cloud computing providers operate. They build huge data centers full of powerful physical computers and sell virtual slices of those machines to other businesses, who in turn get better bang for the buck than building the machines themselves.

For cloud providers, tasks like setting up the virtual machines and getting customer data to the right place are essentially overhead costs. The Mount Evans chip, which Google and Intel have dubbed an “infrastructure processing unit” (IPU), separates those tasks out from the main computing tasks and speeds them up. Doing so also helps ensure the safety of those functions against hackers and adds flexibility to the data centre.

“We see this as strategically vital. It’s an extremely important area for us and for the data centre,” Nick McKeown, senior vice president of the network and edge group at Intel, told Reuters.

Intel is not the only player making infrastructure chips. Nvidia and Marvell Technology have similar but slightly different offerings.

But Intel and Google are working together on a set of software tools that will be released for free in hopes of making Intel’s version of the chip a broader industry standard used beyond Google’s data centres.

Amin Vahdat, a Google fellow and vice president of engineering, said Google is hoping to spur a technology trend that makes it easier for all data centre operators to be more flexible about how they slice up their physical computer servers into virtual ones to suit whatever computing task is at hand.

“The basic question of what is a server is going to go beyond what’s inside the sheet metal. The IPU is going to play a central role there,” Vahdat told Reuters.

© Thomson Reuters 2021

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Microsoft Rides Cloud Computing Boost to Nearly Overtake Apple as Most Valuable Company

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By Reuters | Updated: 28 October 2021

A surge in Microsoft’s shares nearly unseated Apple Inc as the world’s most valuable company on Wednesday, a day before the iPhone maker reports its quarterly results.

Fuelled by strong quarterly growth in its Azure cloud-computing business, Microsoft’s shares jumped 4.2 percent to end at a record $323.17 (roughly Rs. 24,225), elevating the software maker’s market capitalisation to $2.426 trillion (roughly Rs. 1,81,86,020 crore), just short of Apple’s $2.461 trillion (roughly Rs. 1,84,45,070 crore) valuation, according to Refinitiv data.

Apple’s shares dipped 0.3 percent ahead of its report due after the bell on Thursday, with investors focused on how the global supply-chain crisis is challenging the company’s ability to meet demand for its iPhone models.

Microsoft’s stock has rallied 45 percent this year, with pandemic-induced demand for its cloud-based services driving sales. Shares of Apple have climbed 12 percent in 2021.

Apple’s stock market value overtook Microsoft’s in 2010 as the iPhone made it the world’s premier consumer technology company. The two companies have taken turns as Wall Street’s most valuable company in recent years, with Apple holding the title since mid-2020.

In its report late on Tuesday, Microsoft forecast a strong end to the calendar year thanks to its booming cloud business, but it warned that supply-chain woes will continue to dog key units, such as those producing its Surface laptops and Xbox gaming consoles.

Analysts on average expect Apple to report September-quarter revenue up 31 percent to $84.8 billion (roughly Rs. 6,35,560 crore) and adjusted earnings per share of $1.24 (roughly Rs. 90), according to Refinitiv.

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Cloud Computing Providers’ Anti-Competitive Practices Should Be Curbed by EU Tech Rules: Study

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By Reuters | Updated: 26 October 2021

Draft EU rules to curb the power of Amazon, Apple, Alphabet unit Google, and Facebook should also tackle providers of cloud computing services for possible anti-competitive practices, a study said on Tuesday. The report comes amid concerns that some EU lawmakers who are reviewing the Digital Markets Act (DMA) proposed by EU antitrust chief Margrethe Vestager may be lenient towards cloud computing companies.

Amazon’s Amazon Web Services was the leading provider in the second quarter, followed by Microsoft Azure and Google Cloud, market research company Statista found. Others include IBM Cloud, Alibaba Cloud, Salesforce, and Oracle.

Frederic Jenny, chairman of the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development’s Competition Committee, put together the study, in his personal capacity, for trade body Cloud Infrastructure Services Providers in Europe (CISPE).

The new EU rules should also cover software licensing, the report said, with respondents citing unfair terms imposed by some of the big software companies to access their cloud infrastructure.

“The DMA does say that cloud infrastructure can come within the ambit of the DMA but it is not obvious that all the suppliers are covered,” Jenny told Reuters in an interview.

“For example, it doesn’t seem that Google Cloud qualifies under the DMA as a gatekeeper or IBM Cloud or Salesforce.”

Potential anti-competitive practices by some companies could include unfair pricing techniques or efforts to make users’ move to a rival technically difficult, he said.

Jenny said the study interviewed some 25 companies that use cloud computing services, some of which cited issues such as unfair licence terms that force customers to pay again to use software they already own when they move to a competitor.

Respondents were also concerned about providers bundling software products with their cloud infrastructure to make rival products either less attractive or more expensive.

Google, Oracle and SAP declined to comment. Microsoft and Amazon did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

EU lawmakers have to thrash out the draft DMA with EU countries before it becomes law, possibly in 2023.

© Thomson Reuters 2021

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