Chip makers are flashing a big warning for the global economy

An aerial view of the Samsung Electronics’ chip production facilities at Hwaseong, South Korea

Mounting concern over semiconductor demand is sending shudders through Asia’s high-tech exporters, which historically serve as a bellwether for the international economy.

South Korean behemoths Samsung Electronics and SK Hynix have signalled plans to dial back investment outlays, while across the East China Sea, the world’s biggest contract chip maker, Taiwan’s TSMC, indicated a similar expectation.

Fading tech demand highlights a darkening picture as Russia’s war on Ukraine and rising interest rates damp activity.

In recent weeks, major chip manufacturers Micron Technology, Nvidia, Intel and AMD have warned of weaker export orders.

Gartner predicts an abrupt end to one of the industry’s biggest boom cycles. The research firm slashed its outlook for revenue growth to just 7.4% in 2022, down from 14% seen three months earlier. Gartner then sees it falling 2.5% in 2023.

Memory chips are among the most vulnerable segments in the US$500-billion semiconductor market to global economic performance, and Samsung and SK Hynix’s sales of dynamic random access memory, or DRAM, are central to Korean trade.

Next year, demand for DRAM is likely to rise 8.3%, the weakest “bit growth” on record, says tech researcher TrendForce, which sees supply climbing 14.1%. Bit growth refers to the amount of memory produced and serves as a key barometer for global market demand.

South Korea’s exports are bolstered when demand outpaces supply in bit growth. But with supply likely to expand at almost twice the pace of demand next year, exports may be headed for a major downturn.

Slipped

Signs are rising that trade is already starting to deteriorate. Korea’s technology exports slipped in July for the first time in more than two years, with memory chips leading the falls. Semiconductor inventories piled up in June at the fastest pace in more than six years.

Among potential victims will be Samsung, the world’s biggest memory-chip producer and a linchpin of Korea’s trade-reliant economy.

Samsung recorded rapid sales growth when demand was strong relative to supply. As the chip outlook turns gloomy, shares of Samsung have been declining this year, with occasional rebounds on better-than-expected profits.

Samsung and SK Hynix control roughly two-thirds of the global memory market, meaning they have the power to narrow the gap between supply and demand.

Memory is loosely tied to other types of semiconductors, built by firms such as TSMC that produces chips in iPhones, and Nvidia, whose graphics cards are used in everything from games to crypto mining and artificial intelligence.

The Philadelphia Semiconductor Index, which includes these firms, has ebbed and flowed together with memory demand in recent years.

Korean exports have long correlated with global trade, meaning their decline will add to signs of trouble for a world economy facing headwinds from geopolitical risks to higher borrowing costs.

Micron Technology, the world’s third largest memory maker, last week issued a warning about deteriorating demand, triggering a selloff in global chip stocks.

Korea’s stock market has been among leading indicators of the country’s trade performance, with investors dumping shares well before exports slump.

“The trend is important for Asia as its economic cycle is very dependent on tech exports,” said Alicia Garcia Herrero, chief economist for Asia-Pacific at Natixis. “Fewer new orders and the large inventory pile-up mean Asia’s tech sector will see a long destocking cycle and a shrinking profit margin.”

The International Monetary Fund last month downgraded its global growth forecast and said 2023 may be tougher than this year.

Deutsche Bank sees a US recession starting in mid-2023 and Wells Fargo & Co expects one in early 2023. A Bloomberg Economics model sees a 100% probability of a US recession within the next 24 months.  — Sam Kim, (c) 2022 Bloomberg LP

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