Why China trade war could be a mega-problem for US IT sector

Why China trade war could be a mega-problem for US IT sector

Chris Middleton explores the history of the growing trade dispute between the US and China and its allies, and the reasons why it is making many in the technology sector nervous.

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OPINION When US President Donald Trump personally blocked Broadcom Limited’s $142 billion bid for US chip company Qualcomm, we suggested that the unprecedented move could signal a dramatic policy shift on Asia. 

Our headline ‘Tech trade war! Trump blocks Qualcomm / Broadcom deal’ made no bones about our fears over the potential impact on the technology sector.

As we reported, the US President said in his executive order that there was “credible evidence” to believe that Broadcom might “take action that threatens to impair the national security of the United States”.

In the event, no evidence for the Singapore-headquartered company having hostile intentions towards the US was put forward by the White House. The President intervened to block the deal before national security investigations – initiated the previous week in the US – had been completed.

In short, the move suggested an underlying political purpose – in the absence of hard evidence, at least.

US tech exposure

But one critical piece of information was omitted from the announcement: according to this breakdown of technology companies’ exposure to the Chinese market, 63 percent of Qualcomm’s revenues come from China, along with 52 percent of Broadcom’s.

Clearly, any looming trade war between the US and China and its allies would negatively impact those companies, along with any other US technology providers doing business in the region: a lengthy and growing list, not just in hardware, but also in software and communications.

Not only is China now a superpower, it is also automating faster than any nation on Earth. South Korea is the most automated country in terms of its robot density, followed by countries in Western Europe (except the UK), but China will be in the top 10 before the decade is out.

Read more: South Korea most automated nation on earth, says report. The UK? Going nowhere

Many US-listed technology companies are deeply exposed to China, including Intel, NVIDIA, Texas Instruments, and Western Digital – hardware being the big exposure point. One company, US aerospace semiconductor Skyworks Solutions Inc, derives 80 percent of its revenues from China, according to CBS.

Is it a trade war?

Events this week suggest that our predictions of an escalation of hostilities appear to be coming true: a trade war may now be looming between the US and China, and the many nations and territories that have strong connections with Beijing.

At least, the war of words is hotting up, leading one news organisation to describe the situation as “policy as theatre”. The Wall Street Journal weighed in by suggesting that Trump is not to blame for tensions, because China started the trade war “long before he became President”.

“Even free traders and internationalists agree China’s predatory trade practices – which include forcing US business to transfer valuable technology to Chinese firms and restricting access to Chinese markets – are undermining both its partners and the trading system,” said the WSJ.

The US President has called for the imposition of $50 billion in tariffs on Chinese goods and services. Twenty-five percent tariffs will be added to a basket of over 1,300 types, mainly in areas such as IT, communications, machinery, and aerospace, he said.

Full details have yet to be disclosed, leading some to suggest that the move is as much a show of strength as it is a detailed policy. However, that basket of items and services can be seen as the areas in which the US feels most vulnerable.

The President cited China’s aggressive attitude to IP. And on this point, he is correct. China has long been known to replicate or copy Western brands, from sporting goods, clothing, and toys, to cars, phones, computers, and even robots.

However, Section 301 of the 1974 US Trade Act obliges companies trading in China to transfer technology and IP to their local business partners, so it is not a simple matter of theft, but also of agreed trading conditions between the nations.

Today, the US backed up its tariff announcement with a complaint to the World Trade Organisation about China’s IP policy – despite having sidelined the WTO in its unilateral trade move.

“China appears to be breaking WTO rules by denying foreign patent holders, including US companies, basic patent rights to stop a Chinese entity from using the technology after a licensing contract ends,” the US statement said.

“China also appears to be breaking WTO rules by imposing mandatory adverse contract terms that discriminate against, and are less favourable for, imported foreign technology.”

China has responded with threats of just $3 billion in tariffs on US goods, including raw materials, food, and other items (full details of which have also yet to be announced). Beijing has also complained to the WTO about the US’ unilateral move.

A Chinese welcome

But something else happened this month, which has been less well reported: China announced to the world that it is opening up its markets to an unprecedented degree.

Speaking at a China General Chamber of Commerce USA event, New York-based Consul General Zhang Qiyue said that barriers will be removed or eased for foreign investors in the country’s financial sector, and that market entry standards will be levelled for Chinese and overseas banks.

“Many more measures will be introduced this year, and some of the measures will be beyond the expectations of foreign companies and investors,” he said.

This could be what is really ringing alarm bells in Washington – despite the opportunity that greater openness would appear to offer for trade. The subtext is that China is opening its doors to the world, even as the US appears to be closing its.

Put another way, it may be over 40 years since the US Trade Act was signed, but since then China has become an economic and technology superpower, with India and other Asian countries hot on its heels.

Three of the top four biggest companies in the world by revenue are now Chinese: State Grid ($315 billion), oil and gas giant Sinopec ($267.5 billion), and China Natural Petroleum ($262.6 billion). Only US retail behemoth Walmart is larger, with revenues of $485 billion. The US is feeling the heat of the Asian dragon.

Taking stock – and US debt

But when it comes to a different measure, the most valuable companies by market capitalisation (the values of shares on the stock market), US companies easily hold the world stage.

The top three most valuable companies in the world are all US tech providers, Apple, Amazon, and Alphabet (Google’s parent company). Jointly, they are worth over $2.4 trillion – a triple-A rating by any standards. Microsoft and Facebook are also in the top 10, along with three financial services providers.

But in revenue terms, only Apple makes it into the top 10 global giants out of all the technology companies, at number nine. In that list, China is increasingly dominant.

Read more: Amazon now world’s second most valuable company after Apple

And this is where a lurking problem lies in any trade war with China. Massive and valuable though the US economy is – it remains the world’s biggest, with a GDP estimated at $18.56 trillion – the mirror that it holds up to itself is the stock market. And tech stocks are tumbling on Wall Street today over fears at the China news, with billions wiped off company values.

However, the real danger of this new, protectionist US policy, is that the American technology sector is itself highly reliant on Asian manufacturing and, in some cases, also component IP. This is the flipside of the US complaining about China’s aggressive intellectual property stance.

For example, Republic of China (Taiwan) based Foxconn is the world’s largest contract manufacturer, and its US client base includes the world’s top four companies by market cap – Apple, Amazon, Alphabet, and Microsoft – along with other giants, such as Cisco, Dell, Intel, Motorola Mobility, and Vizio, among others.

These companies rely on offshore manufacturing and components to bring some of the world’s most popular technology to the public at healthy margins.

The US high-tech sector is also highly reliant on trading, research, and technology partnerships throughout the world, notably with China and India. In the case of China, access to Western companies has recently been increasing on a ‘like for like’ basis, as China’s new openness takes hold.

And now we’ve seen the US response to that.

But the US also needs to be careful for another reason: it’s enormous debt, a chunk of which is owned by China.

Total US debt is estimated to be in the region of $20 trillion – greater than its 2017 GDP. Roughly 5.5 percent of that debt is owned by China: $1.189 trillion, as of October 2017. Owning so much American debt keeps the yuan linked to the dollar, which reduces the cost of Chinese exports.

The dollar has long been thought of as the most stable currency. However, an escalating trade war that drags in Europe and Asia could rattle that stability.

That said, lots of countries own US debt and will continue to buy it, and China relies on the US market to buy its goods. So it is hard to see who would win from a trade war that is anything more than political rhetoric.

Read more: Vodafone teams up with China Mobile to drive global IoT expansion

In light of all this, any real-world extension of Trump’s trade war into the US technology sector and others, will set alarm bells ringing throughout the world, and in the boardrooms of the many American companies that rely on trade and knowledge exchange with Asia. CM

And finally…

…Brexit. By far the biggest loser in all of this will be Brexit Britain. Leaving the EU – and, for some reason, also the Customs Union – will itself make imports and exports more expensive, which will push up the price of technology in the UK. The government’s own impact assessments have confirmed this.

Meanwhile, some US companies, such as Apple, have already raised prices in the UK, as a direct result of Brexit. Leaving the EU makes it more expensive for US companies to address the UK market, because it is much easier and cheaper for companies to deal with a bloc of nations than with dozens of separate ones. That too will push up technology prices, not just for hardware, but also for services and software.

Any trade war with China could significantly increase the cost of US hardware and components still further, because of America’s reliance on offshore outsourcing. And, of course, push up the prices of previously low-cost Chinese technology too.

US policy on trade tariffs for the EU and the UK remains unclear, but there are lurking risks there as well.

In each of these scenarios, and cumulatively, the UK will be worst hit and least able to defend itself as it leaves the single market. All of this could leave Britain facing some of the highest technology prices in the world.

But newly global Britain could always forge a new alliance, of course: with China. Or peg itself to an increasingly isolationist US, which may negatively impact on deals with other parts of the world.