South Korea-Japan trade feud engulfs tech giant Samsung

Japanese export curbs have left Samsung looking for new sources of essential chipmaking materials. (AP)
Updated 19 July 2019

South Korea-Japan trade feud engulfs tech giant Samsung

  • Company begins testing non-Japanese material for semiconductors as dispute deepens

SEOUL: Samsung has started testing non-Japanese materials used in producing state-of-the-art semiconductors amid a deepening trade dispute between Seoul and Tokyo.

According to company sources, the South Korean chipmaker has begun testing hydrogen fluoride etching gas from China, Taiwan and some local suppliers.

The etching gas — one of three materials that Japan has decided to restrict shipping to South Korea — is crucial for producing semiconductors since it is used in removing excess material around circuit patterns on silicon wafers.

“We’re testing hydrogen fluoride etching gas from companies outside Japan, such as Taiwan and China, in an effort to diversify supply sources,” a Samsung official told Arab News, asking not to be identified. “We’re also searching for local suppliers of the chemical.”

Testing from new suppliers, however, is to expect to take at least six months, and it remains to be seen if the quality of non-Japanese etching gas will be high enough to be used in the production of semiconductor, the official said, refusing to elaborate new supply sources.

SK Hynix and LG Display have also started testing of non-Japanese high-purity hydrogen fluoride to minimize the impact of Japan’s trade embargo, according to the company officials.

Binhua Group of China is known to be one of the Korean firms’ new suppliers for the etching gas. According to Shanghai Securities News, the chemical company based in Shandong has signed an agreement with South Korean chipmakers to supply etching gas.  

The gas needs to be 99.999 percent pure for it to be used in chipmaking. Companies in Japan maintain top technology levels in the field, taking up to 90 percent of the global market.

HIGHLIGHT

Samsung is the world’s largest chipmaker.

On July 1, Japan announced it would curb shipments to South Korea of three materials used for chip and display production — fluorinated polyimide, photoresists and hydrogen fluoride. The move is widely seen as punitive action for a recent court ruling here that orders two Japanese firms to compensate wartime forced laborers. 

With the Moon Jae-in administration rejecting Tokyo’s demand for third-party arbitration, Japan is expected to take the dispute to the International Court of Justice.

Japanese companies can still export high-tech materials to South Korea, but they are required to get a license from the government. The license could take 90 days to come through even if they are approved.

Samsung Electronics and SK Hynix, the world’s two biggest memory chipmakers, have been hit hardest by the tougher export controls by the Japanese government, as both semiconductor manufacturers rely on Japanese supplies for the materials.

According to the Korea International Trade Association, South Korea imported about 92 percent of photoresists and 43.9 percent of hydrogen fluoride from Japan.

Analysts believe the Japanese trade restrictions will compromise Samsung’s next-generation semi-conductor businesses, such as those based on 7-nanometer chip fabrication. The 7-nano chips are made with technology involving extreme ultraviolet lithography, which requires the use of photoresists.

“Samsung was scheduled to mass-produce 7-nano-chips from the latter half of this year with the supply of photoresists from Japan’s supplier, JSR,” said Lee Mi-hye, a researcher at the Export-Import Bank of Korea.

“JSR-made photoresists are produced in Belgium, so it’s not subject to the restrictions for now. But the foreign branches of Japanese firms would be vulnerable to regulations in the near future.”


Powell: No clear hint on rates but says Fed will aid economy

Updated 23 August 2019

Powell: No clear hint on rates but says Fed will aid economy

  • The outlook for the US economy, Powell said, remains favorable but continues to face risks
  • Trump, who has relentlessly attacked Powell and the Fed over its rate policies, kept up his verbal assaults on Twitter

WASHINGTON: Federal Reserve Chairman Jerome Powell sent no clear signal Friday that the Fed will further cut interest rates this year but said it would “act as appropriate” to sustain the expansion — phrasing that analysts see as suggesting rate cuts.
Powell said President Donald Trump’s trade wars have complicated the Fed’s ability to set interest rates and have contributed to a global economic slowdown.
Speaking to a gathering of central bankers in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, Powell didn’t give financial markets explicit guidance on whether or how many rate cuts might be coming the rest of the year. The Fed cut rates last month for the first time in a decade, and financial markets have baked in the likelihood of more rate cuts this year.
The outlook for the US economy, Powell said, remains favorable but continues to face risks. He pointed to increasing evidence of a global economic slowdown and suggested that uncertainty from Trump’s trade wars has contributed to it.
Reacting to the speech Friday, Trump, who has relentlessly attacked Powell and the Fed over its rate policies, kept up his verbal assaults on Twitter:
“As usual, the Fed did NOTHING!” Trump tweeted. “It is incredible that they can ‘speak’without knowing or asking what I am doing, which will be announced shortly. We have a very strong dollar and a very weak Fed. I will work “brilliantly” with both, and the US will do great.”
Trump added:
“My only question is, who is our bigger enemy, Jay Powel (sic) or Chairman Xi?“
Powell’s speech comes against the backdrop of a vulnerable economy, with the financial world seeking clarity on whether last month’s rate decision likely marked the start of a period of easier credit.
The confusion only heightened in the days leading to the Jackson Hole conference, at which Powell gave the keynote address. Minutes of the Fed’s July meeting released Wednesday showed that although officials voted 8-2 to cut their benchmark rate by a quarter-point, there was a wider divergence of opinion on the committee than the two dissenting votes against the rate cut had indicated.
The minutes showed that two Fed officials favored a more aggressive half-point rate cut, while some others adopted the polar opposite view: They felt the Fed shouldn’t cut rates at all.
The minutes depicted the rate cut as a “mid-cycle adjustment,” the phrase Powell had used at his news conference after the rate cut. That wording upset traders who interpreted the remark as suggesting that the Fed might not be preparing for a series of rate cuts to support an economy that’s struggling with a global slowdown and escalating uncertainty from President Donald Trump’s trade war with China.
There was even a difference of opinion among the Fed members who favored a rate cut, the minutes showed, with some concerned most about subpar inflation and others worried more about the threats to economic growth.
Comments Thursday from Fed officials gathering in Jackson Hole reflected the committee’s sharp divisions, including some reluctance to cut rates at least until the economic picture changes.
“I think we should stay here for a while and see how things play out,” said Patrick Harker, the president of the Fed’s Philadelphia regional bank.
Esther George, president of the Fed’s Kansas City regional bank and one of the dissenting votes in July, said, “While I see downside risk, I wasn’t ready to act on that relative to the performance of the economy.”
George said she saw some areas of strength, including very low unemployment and inflation now closer to the Fed’s target level. She said her decision on a possible future rate cut would depend on forthcoming data releases.
Robert Kaplan, president of the Fed’s Dallas branch indicated that he might be prepared to support further rate cuts.
If “we are seeing some weakness in manufacturing and global growth, then it may be good to take some action,” Kaplan said.
George was interviewed on Fox Business Network; Harker and Kaplan spoke on CNBC.
The CME Group, which tracks investor bets on central bank policy, is projecting the likelihood that the Fed will cut rates at least twice more before year’s end.
Adding to the pressures on the Fed, Trump has kept up his attacks on the central bank and on Powell personally, arguing that Fed officials have kept rates too high and should be cutting them aggressively.
Trump has argued that a full percentage-point rate reduction in coming months would be appropriate — a suggestion that most economists consider extravagantly excessive as well as an improper intrusion on the Fed’s political independence.
The president contends that lower rates in other countries have caused the dollar to rise in value and thereby hurt US export sales.
“Our Federal Reserve does not allow us to do what we must do,” Trump tweeted Thursday. “They put us at a disadvantage against our competition.”
Earlier in the week, he had told reporters, “If the Fed would do its job, you would see a burst of growth like you have never seen before.”
Powell has insisted that the White House criticism has had no effect on the Fed’s deliberations over interest rate policy.