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China gears up to fight back in tech war over chips

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For years, China’s race with the US for global tech supremacy has been a boon for its chip industry.

Rapid advances in artificial intelligence, a growing domestic consumer technology market, supercomputer programmes and a rapid military build-up have all fuelled demand for semiconductors. This has intensified an urgency to make more of the chips domestically.

Over the past decade, Beijing poured more than $100bn in subsidies into enterprises such as Shanghai-based Semiconductor Manufacturing International Corporation. As a result, SMIC and its peers built new fabrication capacity faster than chipmakers anywhere else in the world, and their revenues ballooned to Rmb756bn last year, up from Rmb144bn 10 years ago.

But now, as the US-China tech race has become a tech war, China needs its semiconductor companies to fight. The question is: can they win?

Jolted into action by a proliferating web of US sanctions against companies such as telecom equipment maker Huawei and SMIC, Beijing issued a rallying cry last week: the nation must “make technological self-sufficiency the strategic backbone of national development”. By 2025, the government has decreed, the country should make 70 per cent of its semiconductors domestically, up from barely a third today.

That might have been achievable if Washington had stopped at Huawei. The latest US moves against the technology group block any shipments of chips made with US technology to Huawei or any other party for the Chinese company’s products without a special export licence. While that is a blow to Huawei and threatens the survival of its subsidiary HiSilicon, China’s largest chip design company, it did not affect the rest of the country’s chip sector.

But that changed when the US told its semiconductor equipment companies last month that their supplies to SMIC were now also subject to export controls. That means Washington can put the brakes on expansion by China’s largest contract chip manufacturer.

The machines used to etch the surface of silicon wafers, apply microscopic layers of chemicals to them, or clean and test the chips remain a technology frontier. And US companies hold a commanding share in segments of this market. China has its own stable of budding chip equipment makers, but they accounted for only 8 per cent of the $11.4bn China’s chipmakers invested in equipment last year.

Analysts at brokerage Jefferies believe that aggressive expansion plans for fabrication capacity in China “provide a significant opportunity” for Naura, AMEC and ACMR, the largest Chinese equipment makers. Jefferies estimates that Chinese chipmakers are set to spend about $100bn on machinery between 2021 and 2026. The problem is that none of them are quite there yet. Despite China’s push towards localisation, the chip manufacturers supported by Beijing’s cash tap such as SMIC preferred to use equipment from global market leaders including Applied Materials, Lam Research and KLA-Tencor of the US, Dutch equipment maker ASML or Tokyo Electron of Japan.

“Each time Chinese equipment makers received a piece of the subsidiary pie, they made some breakthrough, declared victory and then stopped,” said an executive at a foreign supplier to SMIC. That could change now. Companies, government officials and research institutes are hatching plans to build “de-Americanised” fabrication plants.

But any such project would have to run on machinery cobbled together from different vendors because no single Chinese company can offer equipment for the whole chip manufacturing process. For some particularly sophisticated segments, it would have to buy gear from ASML and Tokyo Electron or even find used US equipment.

According to Douglas Fuller, an expert in the Chinese chip industry at City University of Hong Kong, a private industry study involving US equipment makers explored options for circumventing Washington’s export controls. One possibility discussed was creating a production line at SMIC, equipped with machinery from American companies but made outside the US.

Any such move could trigger US government steps to close loopholes. On the other hand, Beijing could respond to resistance by Chinese chipmakers to buy local by making subsidies for new chip plants conditional on the use of local equipment. Either way, backed by the world’s largest market, China’s chip companies have more than a fighting chance. But they are in for a long, messy battle.

kathrin.hille@ft.com



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Bolsonaro faces investigation over election fraud claims

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Brazilian politics updates

Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro’s legal problems have multiplied after a court opened an investigation into his unsubstantiated warnings of voter fraud in presidential elections next year, a probe which could lead to him being disqualified from running.

The judicial inquiry comes as the far-right leader’s ratings are on the slide following accusations of his incompetent handling of the Covid-19 pandemic, which has claimed the lives of more than half a million Brazilians.

Rising living costs and allegations of corruption in vaccine procurement within his administration have damaged Bolsonaro’s standing further.

With political pressure building, the populist has increased attacks on the electronic voting system in recent weeks, reiterating calls for the adoption of printed paper receipts in order to avoid manipulation.

Opponents fear the former army captain is seeking to cast doubt on the legitimacy of the vote, in preparation for refusing to recognise a potential defeat. A group of 18 current and former Supreme Court justices have defended the current ballot system, which was introduced in 1996, insisting that Brazil had eliminated election fraud.

The Superior Electoral Court this week opened an administrative probe into Bolsonaro over his claims, for which he has provided no evidence. It also asked the Supreme Court to investigate whether the president had committed a crime by disseminating fake news about the voting system.

The president hit back on Tuesday. “I will not accept intimidation. I will continue to exercise my right as a citizen, to freedom of expression, criticism, to listen, and to meet, above all, the popular will,” Bolsonaro told supporters in Brasília.

The electoral court’s intervention showed the judiciary was striking back against Bolsonaro’s attacks, said Carlos Melo, a political scientist at Insper in São Paulo. “He [Bolsonaro] is harming the rules of the game, of democracy and the institutions,” he added. “It’s not different to what [Donald] Trump did, and demagogues in other countries. His intention is to question the electoral process without proof.”

Both moves by the electoral court could in theory eventually pave the way for Bolsonaro being barred from standing in the 2022 poll.

“There is a long way until this can bring actual legal consequences against the president which might affect his eligibility,” said Rogério Taffarello, a partner in criminal law at Mattos Filho and professor at the Getúlio Vargas Foundation. “[This] does not mean, of course, that the existence of such investigations cannot generate political consequences”.

The president is already the subject of a criminal investigation into whether he failed to act on warnings about alleged irregularities by public officials in negotiations over vaccine purchases. Bolsonaro and the government deny any wrongdoing.

Protesters have taken to the streets in cities over the past two months calling for the impeachment of Bolsonaro, who in polls is trailing former leftwing president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, also a likely frontrunner in next year’s election.

Bolsonaro had long promised to present evidence of cheating in elections, even claiming that the 2018 ballot he won was tampered with. Yet last week he admitted to not holding any proof, only “indications”.

Despite his falling popularity, Bolsonaro retains backing in Congress from an amorphous grouping of centre-right political parties known as the Centrão, or “Big Centre”. Analysts said for now this support appeared to be holding.

Additional reporting by Carolina Pulice



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South Korea looks to fintech as household debt balloons to $1.6tn

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South Korea Economy updates

After her family business of ferrying drunk people home was hit by closures of bars due to Covid-19 curfews and social distancing, Lee Young-mi* found herself juggling personal debts of about Won30m ($26,000).

The 56-year-old resident of Suncheon in South Korea was already struggling to pay off or refinance four credit cards, but now faces the prospect of those debts rapidly multiplying after her husband was diagnosed with cancer.

“We’ve had little income for more than a year as not many people are out drinking until late into the night,” said Lee. “Now my husband won’t be able to work at all for the next three months after his surgery.”

Lee’s story is playing out across Asia’s fourth-largest economy as self-employed workers, who make up nearly a third of the labour force, have seen their incomes reduced sharply due to coronavirus restrictions. Now, after struggling for years to keep a lid on household debts that hit a record Won1,765tn ($1.6tn) in March, Seoul is looking to fintech companies and peer-to-peer lenders for answers. 

Chart showing increase in South Korea's household debt

Among them is PeopleFund, which touts tech-based investment products backed by machine learning that allow borrowers to refinance their higher-interest loans from banks and credit card companies.

The company has loaned at least $1bn to more than 7,500 customers since it was established in 2015. Its products allow borrowers to switch their debts to fixed-rate, amortised loans at annual interest rates of about 11 per cent, a change from the riskier floating rate, interest-only loans common in South Korea. 

PeopleFund has received about Won96.7bn in financing from brokerage CLSA, and along with Lendit and 8Percent is one of the first among the country’s 250 shadow banks to win a peer-to-peer lending licence. 

“The country’s most serious household debt problem is with unsecured non-bank loans, whose pricing has been too high. We can offer more affordable loans to ordinary people unable to receive bank loans,” Joey Kim, chief executive of PeopleFund, told the Financial Times.

The proliferation of digital lenders and fintechs in South Korea, where higher-risk borrowers are often cut off from bank financing, has been encouraged by the country’s government.

“We hope that P2P lenders will help resolve the dichotomy in the credit market by increasing the access of low-income people to mid-interest loans,” said an official at the Financial Supervisory Service.

South Korea’s household debt situation has become more pressing since the onset of the pandemic, with increases in borrowing for mortgages, to cover stagnating wages and to invest in the booming stock market. South Korean households are among the world’s most heavily indebted, with the average debt equal to 171.5 per cent of annual income.

South Korea’s household debt-to-GDP ratio stood at 103.8 per cent at the end of last year, compared with an average 62.1 per cent of 43 countries surveyed by the Bank for International Settlements.

Much of the new debt has been risky. Unsecured household loans from non-bank financial institutions were Won116.9tn as of March, up 33 per cent from four years ago, according to the Bank of Korea, much of it high interest loans taken out by poorer borrowers.

Getting on top of the problem has taken on national importance. In a rare warning in June, the central bank said the combination of high asset prices and excessive borrowing risked triggering a sell-off in markets and a rapid debt deleveraging.

“If financial imbalances increase further, this could dent our mid-to-long-term economic growth prospects,” BoK governor Lee Ju-yeol said in July.

The country’s economic planners, however, are struggling to contain debt-fuelled asset bubbles without undermining South Korea’s fragile economic recovery.

The government has attempted to address the danger by tightening lending rules. Regulators in July lowered the country’s maximum legal interest rate that private lenders can charge their customers from 24 to 20 per cent.

Economists caution that rising debt levels increase South Korea’s vulnerability to an economic shock. 

They also warn that the asset quality of financial institutions could be hit by a jump in distressed loans when the BoK rolls back monetary easing, expected in the fourth quarter.

“Monetary tightening is needed to curb asset bubbles but this will increase the household debt burden, holding back consumption further,” said Park Chong-hoon, head of research at Standard Chartered in Seoul. “The government is facing a dilemma.”

For Lee Young-mi, however, the 11 per cent rate offered by the PeopleFund is still too high. “I am not sure how to pay back the debt.”

*The name has been changed



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European and Chinese stocks rise after calming words from Beijing

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Chinese equities updates

European shares chased gains in China after calls from Beijing for greater co-operation with Washington helped sooth jitters over a regulatory crackdown in the world’s biggest emerging market.

Europe’s Stoxx 600 index rose 0.7 per cent on Monday to hit new all-time highs, while the UK’s FTSE 100 rose 1 per cent led by economically sensitive stocks including banks and energy groups. London-listed lender HSBC gained 1 per cent after it reported second-quarter figures that easily beat analysts’ expectations.

The gains came after the China Securities Regulatory Commission, Beijing’s market regulator, called on Sunday for closer co-operation with Washington, stressing the country’s efforts to improve transparency and predictability after a crackdown on tutoring groups obliterated the market value of the $100bn sector’s biggest companies.

Chinese listings in the US have become a geopolitical flashpoint as Beijing has sought to exert greater control over the country’s powerful tech sector. The US Securities and Exchange Commission said on Friday that Chinese groups that sought to sell shares in America would be subject to stricter disclosures.

Shares in China rebounded after their worst month in almost three years, with China’s CSI 300 benchmark of Shanghai- and Shenzhen-listed blue-chips rose 2.6 per cent on Monday, while Hong Kong’s Hang Seng index added 1.1 per cent. The city’s Hang Seng Tech index, which tracks big internet groups including Tencent and Alibaba, reversed early losses to rise 1 per cent. Futures tracking Wall Street’s benchmark S&P 500 index climbed 0.6 per cent.

Last month, China’s cyber-security regulator announced plans to review all foreign listings by companies with data on more than 1m users after top leaders in Beijing called for an overhaul of how the country regulates initial public offerings in the US. The crackdown came just days after the $4.4bn listing of ride-hailing group Didi Chuxing.

The intensifying scrutiny of how Chinese groups access capital markets has pummelled stocks, delivering the worst month for China tech groups listed in the US since the global financial crisis. The Hang Seng Tech index fell 17 per cent last month.

“While we do not consider it prudent to completely avoid investments in China, further volatility can be expected until the first quarter of 2022, by which time we believe most regulatory changes may already be in place,” analysts at Credit Suisse wrote in a note on Monday.

Meanwhile, data released by China at the weekend showed that factory activity grew at the slowest pace in 15 months in July as demand contracted for the first time in more than a year.

Government bonds were steady with the yield on the benchmark German 10-year Bund, which moves inversely to its price, gaining 0.01 percentage points to minus 0.45. The equivalent US 10-year yield was steady at 1.234 per cent.

Bond yields have been falling in recent weeks, despite higher than expected inflation readings in the US and indications from the US federal Reserve last week that it was moving a step closer to the day when it would start tapering its $120bn in monthly asset purchases.

The euro rose 0.1 per cent against the dollar to $1.1885, while the pound gained 0.1 per cent to purchase $1.3924. Prices for global oil benchmark Brent crude fell 1 per cent to $74.66.

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