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US allows sales of chips to Huawei’s non-5G businesses

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The US is allowing a growing number of chip companies to supply Huawei with components as long as these are not used for its 5G business, people briefed by Washington said, in a potential lifeline for the Chinese group.

Analysts believe this could mean that tough US sanctions this year against China’s leading technology group could be less threatening to its overall business than previously thought. While the sanctions would still pose a grave challenge to Huawei’s 5G business, the company’s important smartphone arm might have a chance to recover.

The US Department of Commerce “has been telling companies in recent conversations that while licences to supply Huawei are handled with a view to denial, this can be overcome if you can demonstrate that your technology does not support 5G”, said a semiconductor executive involved in dialogue with the department, referring to the cutting-edge telecoms infrastructure.

Executives at two Asian semiconductor companies said they were optimistic that their applications for licences to resume shipments to Huawei would be approved. “It has been indicated to us that chips for mobile devices are not a problem,” said one of them.

Washington barred companies worldwide from manufacturing for or selling to the Chinese group components that used US technology, under rules imposed in May and then tightened in August. Given the central role of US technology in the global semiconductor industry, the sanctions threatened to choke off Huawei’s access to chips.

But recently Washington has appeared more willing to permit companies to supply Huawei with components for non-5G uses. The display unit of South Korea’s Samsung Electronics said on Tuesday that it had received a US licence for shipping organic light-emitting diodes, or OLED displays, for handsets to Huawei.

“We believe this is a strong indication the US intends to allow Huawei to stay in the handset business, since, as we have argued, it does not present an obvious national security threat to the US,” wrote Edison Lee, an analyst at Jefferies, in a research note.

Mr Lee said Japan’s Sony and Chinese-owned OmniVision, headquartered in California, had also been granted licences to supply Huawei with CMOS image sensors — chips used in smartphone cameras.

OmniVision did not respond to a request for comment.

At an earnings briefing on Wednesday, Sony declined to comment on whether it had been granted a licence to resume selling its image sensors for use in Huawei smartphones. 

Sony was forced to cut its full-year profit guidance for its image sensor business by 38 per cent after halting its sales to Huawei from September 15. 

The US government, which has argued for more than a decade that Huawei’s telecoms infrastructure equipment could pose a security threat, originally put the Chinese company on a list of entities subject to export controls last year.

In the year that followed, more than 300 companies applied for licences to allow them to continue doing business with Huawei, of which about one-third were granted. US chip companies Intel and AMD were among those that received a licence. Intel has continued to supply Huawei with processors for servers in its cloud computing business.

After a second wave of sanctions was announced in May, Huawei started stockpiling the chips needed to power its telecoms networking gear, such as base stations. Its telecoms infrastructure unit, which builds and manages mobile networks for carriers from China Mobile to Deutsche Telekom, has enough inventory for about two years, according to industry executives.

But Huawei’s consumer business, which accounts for more than half of its revenue, was harder hit. The tougher US restrictions announced in August not only block contract chipmakers from manufacturing the latest smartphone processor designed by Huawei in-house, but also bar vendors such as Taiwan’s MediaTek from selling it off-the-shelf chipsets.

Jefferies’ Mr Lee said if Washington was willing to allow Huawei’s smartphone business to survive, both US chip company Qualcomm and MediaTek could receive licences later this year to resume sales of certain chips needed for smartphones to Huawei.

However, industry experts caution against too high expectations on the matter, pointing to what they say are the Trump administration’s erratic policy decisions.

Additional reporting by Song Jung-a in Seoul



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China lands spacecraft on Mars

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China has landed a spacecraft containing a rover on Mars, according to state media, in a further sign of its bold ambitions in the sphere.

The rover was part of the Tianwen-1 unmanned mission launched in July last year. Tianwen means “questions to heaven” and was named after a poem by Chinese poet Qu Yuan.

The mission, which was described by Chinese media as a “new major milestone” and the “first step in China’s planetary exploration of the solar system”, was intended to match the US by successfully landing on the red planet.

The Global Times reported that the lander and the rover from the Tianwen-1 probe reached a plain on Mars called Utopia Planitia on early Saturday morning local time, citing information from the China National Space Administration.

The Tianwen-1 probe’s lander and rover separated with the orbiter at about 4am, after which it had a three hour flight before entering Mars’ atmosphere, according to the newspaper.

The spacecraft then “spent around nine minutes decelerating, hovering for obstacle avoidance and cushioning, before its soft landing”. The rover is named Zhurong after a Chinese god of fire, and is 1.85m and weighs 240kg. It is expected to transverse the planet for about 92 days.

The probe was launched into space on July 23 by the Long March 5 rocket from the Wenchang launch pad in Hainan province, in the south of the country.

The achievement of the Mars landing is part of a wider expansion of China’s space programme. The country’s engineers launched the first part of its permanent space station into the Earth’s orbit late last month.

In 2018, China for the first time launched more vessels into orbit than any other nation.

The US views China’s efforts in space in strategic terms. “Beijing is working to match or exceed US capabilities in space to gain the military, economic and prestige benefits that Washington has accrued from space leadership,” according to the annual threat assessment published by the office of the US director of national intelligence.



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Iron ore sinks from record high on concerns over China crackdown

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The scorching rally that propelled the price of steel-making commodity iron ore to a record high came to a shuddering halt on Friday on concerns China will crack down on speculative activity.

The main iron ore futures contract in Singapore fell as much as 14 per cent to $190 a tonne before recovering to $209, while there were also big drops in China where the most active contract on the Dalian Commodity Exchange slumped almost 8 per cent.

The sell-off came as the local government in Tangshan, China’s main steel-making city, said it would examine illegal behaviour and suspend production at mills found to be manipulating market prices by spreading rumours and hoarding material, according to reports from Reuters and Bloomberg.

“China’s central government seems to be very concerned about this major input for its steel-intensive economy,” said Tom Price, head of commodities strategy at Liberum. “I think what the pullback reflects is the government trying to rein in prices.”

Line chart of $ per tonne showing Iron ore prices have fallen after a strong rally

Authorities in China have sought to cool hot commodity markets, with Premier Li Keqiang calling this week for stable prices. Iron was trading at $90 a tonne a year ago and hit a record high of $230 this week. Tangshan, which accounts for 14 per cent of China’s steel output, has introduced production curbs as part of a crackdown on pollution.

However, these measures have been slow to take effect as mills in the rest of the country have rushed to crank up output to take advantage of reduced capacity in Tangshan and cash in on record domestic steel prices. A decision to remove the export tax rebate for some steel products on June 1 has also led to other mills increasing production.

As a result, China’s steel production hit a record level in March, with output up 19 per cent year on year to 94m tonnes, according to financial group ANZ. The firm said production was even higher in April, with exports up 20 per cent year on year. That in turn boosted iron ore, which climbed 35 per cent over the past month.

“What the Chinese government is trying to do is incrementally contain the steel market, mindful of the fact they have spent a fortune resurrecting their economy over the past 12 months and they don’t want to kill the recovery,” said Price. “The measures are quite clever.”

Iron ore has led a broad advance in commodity markets over the past year, fanning talk that another “supercycle” — a long period of high prices — has arrived.

That has been a boon for big iron producers such as Anglo-Australian company BHP and its Brazilian rival Vale, which require a price of just $50 a tonne to break even.

However, most analysts think the iron ore market will remain tight and prices elevated for the rest of the year. That view is based on rising steel demand outside China as big economies accelerate and while important producers in Australia are operating at full capacity.

“While the price has been thumped in the past couple of days, demand remains robust, helped by the fantastic margins the steel industry is enjoying,” said Andrew Glass, Singapore-based founder of Avatar Commodities.

Elsewhere, copper was set for its first weekly loss in more than a month amid worries that a tightening of credit in China could hit demand for the metal, used in everything from household goods to electric vehicles. Copper, which started the week at $10,412 a tonne, was trading at $10,245 on Friday.



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Biden says ‘strong reason’ to believe pipeline hackers are in Russia

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Joe Biden said the US government has “strong reason” to believe the hackers behind a massive cyber attack that shut the Colonial petroleum pipeline were based in Russia, as he urged Americans to not panic over temporary fuel shortages.

“We do not believe the Russian government was involved in this attack. But we do have strong reason to believe that the criminals who did the attack are living in Russia. That is where it came from,” the US president said in a speech on Thursday afternoon at the White House.

“We have been in direct communication with Moscow about the imperative for responsible countries to take decisive action against these ransomware networks,” he added, noting he hoped to discuss the issue with Russia’s president Vladimir Putin.

The 5,500-mile pipeline system has capacity for 2.5m barrels a day of liquid fuels such as petrol diesel and jet fuel, which it carries from Gulf Coast refineries to major hubs in the north-east. The FBI has indicated that the shutdown was caused by a ransomware attack by hacking group DarkSide.

Cyber experts claim Russia tacitly allows ransomware gangs to operate in the country and will not prosecute them. In return, those criminals do not attack Russian companies and can be called upon to share their access to victims’ systems, experts say.

Last month, the US Treasury accused one of Russia’s intelligence services, the FSB, of “cultivating and co-opting” the notorious ransomware group Evil Corp, which has been sanctioned.

The Colonial pipeline — responsible for carrying almost half of the motor fuel used on the US east coast — began the process of fully reopening on Wednesday evening, five days after it was hit by a cyber attack that triggered a spate of panic-buying by motorists across the US south-east.

Biden said the US government expected a “region by region return to normalcy beginning this weekend and continuing into next week”. He urged Americans to avoid panic-buying petrol, and said he had called on state governors and local authorities to keep a lookout for any illegal price gouging by businesses.

“Don’t panic, number one. I know seeing lines at the pumps or gas stations with no gas can be extremely stressful, but this is a temporary situation,” Biden said. “Do not get more gas than you need in the next few days.”

Shortages at filling stations triggered by panic-buying continued on Thursday, with 70 per cent of stations in North Carolina running dry and about half in Virginia, Georgia and South Carolina, according to GasBuddy, a data provider.

The situation in some major urban hubs was beginning to improve, however. The amount of stations without fuel in Atlanta fell from a peak of 73 per cent overnight to 68 per cent by Thursday afternoon.

Colonial on Thursday morning said it had made “substantial progress” in bringing its operations back online and that all of its markets would begin receiving product by the afternoon.

Prices at the pump have continued to rise. National average petrol prices rose to $3.03 on Thursday, according to the AAA, an automobile association. They crossed the $3 a gallon threshold on Wednesday for the first time since 2014.

Gasoline futures retreated on the news of Colonial’s reopening, as traders anticipated supplies returning to normal. Contracts for June delivery slipped 7 cents to $2.08, their lowest level since April in Thursday afternoon trading.



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