Chip investment boom is just getting started

The Intel logo appears behind LED lights in this illustration taken Jan. 5, 2018.
The Intel logo appears behind LED lights in this illustration taken Jan. 5, 2018. REUTERS/Dado Ruvic/Illutration

NEW YORK, Sept 8 (Reuters Breakingviews) - The chip industry usually invests too much or too little. Persistent global semiconductor shortages, especially in automaking, indicate capital discipline went too far in recent years, but the pendulum has started to swing back. In the latest sign of that shift, Intel (INTC.O) Chief Executive Pat Gelsinger said on Tuesday that the U.S. company planned to invest up to $95 billion in Europe over the next decade. While capital expenditure has increased, especially at the biggest firms like Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing (2330.TW) and Samsung Electronics (005930.KS), it’s still short of the sort of splurges that have triggered past gluts.

There are good reasons for these booms and busts. Semiconductor demand has risen for decades and should keep growing. Gelsinger on Tuesday predicted that chips would make up a fifth of the cost of an auto in 2030, compared with 4% in 2019, as cars become electric and autonomous. Building a plant is a giant gamble. TSMC, for example, spent more than $15 billion on its latest cutting-edge one in Taiwan. Companies are therefore reluctant to embark on such projects unless they are sure plants can run near full capacity to earn a decent return. Such behavior leaves limited wiggle room for demand overshoots. Chips are cheap and indispensable, as idling auto plants worldwide currently illustrate. Customers will often order extra chips when supplies are tight, to ensure they have enough.

The problem is that while each company is listening to the market, the sector herds together. Intel, Samsung Electronics and TSMC plan to invest around $75 billion combined in semiconductors this year, up from about $50 billion in 2019. Even so, Semico Research estimated the industry as a whole would spend only 13% more than 2020. Estimates are rising though, as Gartner estimated in July the increase would be 28%. Both estimates are still modest compared with the 85% jump seen in 2000 or the surge of 107% in 2010, according to researcher IC Insights. Each time, there was a rare decline in chip shipments within two years.

Given persistent semiconductor production shortages, and the growing desire of nations from China to the United States to subsidize chip production, investment may well pick up next year. That would be a stronger sign that the inevitable hangover awaits further out.

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- Intel Chief Executive Pat Gelsinger said on Sept. 7 that the company would announce the locations of two major new European chip plants by the end of 2021. Intel said it could invest as much as 80 billion euros in the continent over the next 10 years and that it would reserve capacity in its plant in Ireland to produce chips for automakers.

Speaking at Munich's IAA auto show, Gelsinger said the company believed chips would make up 20% of the cost of vehicles by 2030, compared with about 4% in 2019. The global auto manufacturing sector has been hit by production shortfalls over the past year due to shortages of semiconductors needed to make vehicles.

The semiconductor industry is expected to spend $127 billion on capital expenditure in 2021, Semico Research estimated in March. That would be an increase of 13% from 2020.

Editing by Swaha Pattanaik and Marjorie Backman

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