China is vastly increasing investment in semiconductors. In 2020, cash flowing into China’s semiconductor firms amounted to RMB 227.6 billion (around $35.2 billion) through the primary and secondary markets, a stunning 407% increase from the previous year, according to TechNode’s research.
In the premiere issue of our Semiconductors In-focus newsletter, we break down how this money is flowing into the sector, and where it’s going.
The rapid rise in semiconductor investment came as China realizes its dependency on foreign imported chips poses major risks as the country seeks to lead the world in high-tech areas such as artificial intelligence, supercomputers, and electric vehicles.
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China is the world’s largest consumer of semiconductors, and the lion’s share of revenue from purchasing these chips go to foreign firms. China consumed $143.4 billion worth of wafers in 2020, and just 5.9% of them were produced by companies headquartered in China.
China has sought to make more of its own chips for years. In 2017, Chinese vice premier Ma Kai said: “We cannot be reliant on foreign chips.” Last year, President Xi Jinping called to “make technological self-sufficiency a strategic pillar of national development.” Beijing is expected to add “a suite of measures to bolster research, education, and financing” for the semiconductor industry to a draft of this year’s 14th five-year plan, China’s top-level policy blueprint for the following half decade, Bloomberg reported.
Concern over chip dependency has grown higher over the past two years as the US used semiconductors as leverage against companies like Huawei, a Chinese “national champion” which supports the country’s mission to lead the world in the next-generation wireless technology known as 5G.
The Trump administration banned Huawei from buying components from US companies in 2019 and cut the company off from third-nation suppliers that use American technology in 2020. The moves prompted Chinese business and political leaders to resolve to never again be put into such a situation.
China has massively increased investment in semiconductors over the past two years. The central and local governments have launched hundreds of policy funds, or guidance funds, to support the industry. The private sector also jumped onto the bandwagon. Venture capital investment into the semiconductors sector more than tripled in 2020 from the previous year. China also tapped its massive private capital market by opening up its financial market to let individual investors directly support high-tech firms that are not yet profitable. In 2020, 32 chip companies went public on China’s A-share market, up from 18 in 2019.
The National Integrated Circuit Industry Investment Fund, known as the Big Fund, is the Chinese government’s main vehicle for semiconductor investment. The fund was first set up in 2014 by China’s Ministry of Finance and China Development Bank Capital, as well as several other state-owned enterprises, which together injected RMB 138.7 billion into the fund.
The Big Fund was established to invest in chip manufacturing and design, and promote mergers and acquisitions, according to China’s Ministry of Industry and Information Technology (MIIT), which supervises the fund.
It has shown a strong preference for semiconductor manufacturing companies, as China strives to produce cutting-edge 7-nanometer chips. The RMB 138.7 billion first Big Fund closed all of its investment projects at the end of 2019. Around 67% of its total investment went to semiconductor manufacturing firms, according to a report by Eastmoney Securities, a Chinese brokerage.
The first Big Fund had backed companies like Shanghai-based Semiconductors Manufacturing International Corporation (SMIC) and Huahong Semiconductor Limited. SMIC is China’s largest contract maker of semiconductors. It was also added to a US export blacklist in 2020.
In October 2019, the Big Fund raised another RMB 204 billion in a new funding round from the finance ministry, state-owned enterprises, and local governments.
Meanwhile, provincial governments have set up guidance funds totaling more than RMB 300 billion to support local semiconductor industries.
Opened stock market
In July 2019, China opened up a Nasdaq-style board on the Shanghai Stock Exchange. The STAR Market is the first Chinese exchange to allow unprofitable companies to list., revamping China’s earlier stock market rules.
However, not every unprofitable tech company is welcome. The Shanghai bourse has said that the STAR Market prefers companies that align with the “Made in China 2025” blueprint, Beijing’s plan for self-sufficiency in strategic sectors such as semiconductors and artificial intelligence.
Of the 216 companies listed on the STAR Market, 36 are semiconductors firms, as of the end of January. They include SMIC, which debuted on the market in July 2020 and saw its shares jump more than 200% on the first day of trading.
The STAR Market’s appetite for semiconductors has spurred a rush of activity in the sector. More semiconductor companies went public in 2019 and 2020 than all of those from 2010 to 2018. In 2020, some 32 chip companies went public on China’s A-share market, raising a total of RMB 87.6 billion.
VC money more than tripled
At the same time, private capital is quickly moving into the sector.
In 2020, the total amount of VC investment into Chinese semiconductor companies grew more than 366% from the previous year to RMB 140 billion, according to data from Itjuzi, a Chinese VC funding database. The total number of VC investment deals also nearly doubled in 2020 to 413.
Thanks to a robust stock market that gives investors more options to exit, later-stage rounds in semiconductors have seen steady growth. The percentage of investment deals after Series A had increased to 55.8% in 2020 from 33.1% in 2018.
Unlike government-led funds, VC firms prefer chip-design firms to manufacturing companies. Chip designers accounted for around 67.2% of VC investment deals in 2020.
Despite heavy investment from the government and private investors, experts have said that China will fall far short of its 2025 goal.
While China’s goal is to make 70% of the chips it uses by 2025, IC Insights, a market research firm, forecasted that China will produce only 20.7% of its chip consumption in 2024, growing only 3% from 2020.
The country not only needs to produce more chips, but it also needs to make sophisticated chips that can meet the demands of modern computing devices, such as high-end smartphones and supercomputers. However, experts said China’s chip-making capability is “generations behind” the leading edge in Taiwan.
Though a complete value chain in five years may be a dream, China is making progress in the sector. Changxin Memory Technology, a state-backed semiconductor startup, started mass production of the country’s first locally designed dynamic random-access memory (DRAM) chip in September 2019. HiSilicon, Huawei’s chip-design branch, ranked among the world’s top 10 vendors of semiconductors in August for the first time.
But to emerge as a world-class semiconductor maker, analysts say, that China also needs to narrow a talent gap. It faces a talent shortfall of around 300,000 people, according to the China Semiconductor Industry Association.
How many of China’s top university graduates end up working for the domestic semiconductors industry? Where do Chinese chip makers find talent? Will the talent gap narrow as China continues to invest in the sector? We will dive into that topic in the next issue of this newsletter.
UPDATE: The chart China lags peers in semiconductor revenue has been revised to refer to locations, rather than countries, of headquarters.