The Rise Of Silicon Nationalism—And Why It Matters
Recently, UBS endeavored to define a political-economic trend in the semiconductor space—"silicon nationalism" or "the recognition by major global powers that semiconductor manufacturing is increasingly a strategic imperative." To go a step further, I define silicon nationalism as the attempt of governments to onshore semiconductor supply chains entirely or build a semiconductor supply chain of politically allied countries.
This trend is clear when analyzing recent government investments globally:
• In the U.S., Congress has passed the U.S. Innovation and Competition Act (USICA) and the America COMPETES Act, which each propose a $52 billion investment in domestic manufacturing through subsidies. Additionally, a rejiggered FABS Act would establish an investment tax credit to incentivize semiconductor manufacturing, design and research.
• In the EU, the European Chips Act would add 15 billion euros ($17.11 billion) in public and private investment to the 30 billion euros already earmarked to bolster semiconductor manufacturing on the continent.
• China’s national fund has invested $39 billion to date in semiconductor manufacturing as part of the Made in China 2025 initiative, targeting 70% self-sufficiency by 2025. This doesn't include $50 billion in government grants, equity investments and low-interest loans, as well as a corporate tax exemption for chipmakers worth $20 billion.
• Taiwan announced a goal of self-sufficiency pertaining to manufacturing the equipment needed to produce chips. Last year, Taiwan spent $600 billion purchasing equipment from abroad.
• South Korea announced a $450 billion investment to boost semiconductor production last year.
These are only the federal investments. In the U.S., local incentives in semiconductor hubs like greater Phoenix, Columbus, Austin and Albany have drawn private investments of tens and even hundreds of billions of dollars. In China, cities like Shanghai have announced subsidies of up to 30% for semiconductor materials and equipment.
The goal of these investments is "tech sovereignty" (a phrase European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen has been fond of using over the years). Or, as President Biden put it in his State of the Union address, "instead of relying on foreign supply chains, let’s make it in America."
Of course, no single country can own the end-to-end semiconductor supply chain. As Accenture analysts put it, "a semiconductor product could cross international borders approximately 70 or more times before finally making it to the end customer."
For this reason, global leaders are building alliances to bolster onshore supply chains and create national chip stockpiles for critical industries like telecommunications, healthcare and military and national security applications. In the U.S., EU and China, committees have assembled to strengthen cooperation between governments and friendly foreign semiconductor industries. These alliances pit the U.S. and EU against China, with the semiconductor hubs of eastern Asia caught between global superpowers—none more so than Taiwan.
Alex Capri, a research fellow at Singapore-based Hinrich Foundation, states, "Techno-nationalism is a new strain of mercantilist thinking that links technological innovation and capabilities directly to a nation’s national security, economic prosperity and social stability." As Capri observes, mercantilism—a protectionist posture toward global trade policy—has historically been the rule, not the exception.
However, in the post-WWII era, this rule has given way to a period of globalization and international trade. Now, here is the crux of the matter: The semiconductor industry germinated, grew and thrived in this anomalous period of global trade and cooperation.
What will the industry that underpins all modern technology look like in this new era of silicon nationalism? The truth is, we don’t know. There are positive effects of increased public and private investment in the semiconductor industry, including job creation, investment in STEM education and R&D and increased expenditures in cybersecurity.
There are also negative effects of silicon nationalism. Recently, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce proposed exempting semiconductor manufacturing from NEPA review to expedite new fabrication plant construction. Whether that's good or bad isn't for me to say. However, according to research results from management consultancy McKinsey, a typical semiconductor fabrication center will use as much energy as 50,000 homes. It would be naive to think a massive push to expedite onshore manufacturing won't require some environmental tradeoffs.
Currently, experts suggest a decline in international cooperation may result in prolonged and heightened chip shortages and higher prices for consumer and enterprise technology. According to the findings of an SIA study, 75% of the world’s chip production is concentrated in East Asia, a hotbed for foundries (contract manufacturers). One company, TSMC, accounts for about 24% of that capacity and 92% of the world’s production at the leading edge.
It's perhaps the rise of fabless manufacturing in the 1980s that enabled the democratization of consumer electronics we've come to take for granted, thanks to the profitability of differentiating roles in the value chain. Value creation in the semiconductor industry is divided into four categories: equipment, design, fabrication and assembly, to say nothing of finite raw materials needed for production. To date, the U.S. has largely controlled the relationship of U.S. firms with TSMC thanks to buying power and equipment manufactured by the U.S. and its allies, especially state-of-the-art lithography systems required to produce leading-edge chips.
That said, the geopolitical situation of TSMC is nebulous. Whether buying power and equipment will take precedence over, for example, geographical proximity should chip wars escalate is a question on many minds now.
One thing is certain—the rise of silicon nationalism is creating uncertainty. Consumers are wondering if they should stock up on the latest iPhone or preorder a new car. Governments are trying to figure out how to bridge the decade(s) and trillions of dollars it will take to deglobalize supply chains. Companies in the semiconductor industry are faced with navigating complex geopolitics in the course of everyday business. Finally, there's uncertainty about a market that's come of age in what may very well be a bygone era.