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Singapore-based electronics broker set to make big windfall for stocking up on micocontrollers

TAIPEI/SHANGHAI/SINGAPORE – From his small office in Singapore, Kelvin Pang is ready to wager a $23 million payday that the worst of the chip shortage is not over for automakers – at least in China.

Pang has bought 62,000 microcontrollers, chips that help control a range of functions from car engines and transmissions to electric vehicle power systems and charging, which cost the original buyer $23.80 each in Germany.

He’s now looking to sell them to auto suppliers in the Chinese tech hub of Shenzhen for $375 apiece. He says he has turned down offers for $100 each, or $6.2 million for the whole bundle, which is small enough to fit in the back seat of a car and is packed for now in a warehouse in Hong Kong.Advertisement ·

“The automakers have to eat,” Pang told Reuters. “We can afford to wait.”

The 58-year-old, who declined to say what he himself had paid for the microcontrollers (MCUs), makes a living trading excess electronics inventory that would otherwise be scrapped, connecting buyers in China with sellers abroad.

Kelvin Pang, a Singapore-based electronics broker, points to a map in his office in Singapore, June 24, 2022. REUTERS/Kevin Krolicki

The global chip shortage over the past two years – caused by pandemic supply chaos combined with booming demand – has transformed what had been a high-volume, low-margin trade into one with the potential for wealth-spinning deals, he says.

Automotive chip order times remain long around the world, but brokers like Pang and thousands like him are focusing on China, which has become ground zero for a crunch that the rest of the industry is gradually moving beyond.

Globally, new orders are backed up by an average of about a year, according to a Reuters survey of 100 automotive chips produced by the five leading manufacturers.

To counter the supply squeeze, global automakers like General Motors Co., Ford Motor Co. and Nissan Motor Co. have moved to secure better access through a playbook that has included negotiating directly with chipmakers, paying more per part and accepting more inventory.Advertisement · Scroll to continue

For China though, the outlook is bleaker, according to interviews with more than 20 people involved in the trade from automakers, suppliers and brokers to experts at China’s government-affiliated auto research institute CATARC.

Despite being the world’s largest producer of cars, and leader in electric vehicles (EVs), China relies almost entirely on chips imported from Europe, the United States and Taiwan. Supply strains have been compounded by a zero-COVID lockdown in auto hub Shanghai that ended last month.

As a result, the shortage is more acute than elsewhere and threatens to curb the nation’s EV momentum, according to CATARC, the China Automotive Technology and Research Center. A fledgling domestic chipmaking industry is unlikely to be in a position to cope with demand within the next two to three years, it says.

Pang, for his part, sees China’s shortage continuing through 2023 and deems it dangerous to hold inventory after that. The one risk to that view, he says: a sharper economic slowdown that could depress demand earlier.

Forecasts ‘hardly possible’

Computer chips, or semiconductors, are used in the thousands in every conventional and electric vehicle. They help control everything from deploying airbags and automating emergency braking to entertainment systems and navigation.

The Reuters survey conducted in June took a sample of chips, produced by Infineon, Texas Instruments, NXP, STMicroelectronics and Renesas, which perform a diverse range of functions in cars.

New orders via distributors are on hold for an average lead time of 49 weeks – deep into 2023, according to the analysis, which provides a snapshot of the global shortage though not a regional breakdown. Lead times range from 6 to 198 weeks.

German chipmaker Infineon told Reuters it is “rigorously investing and expanding manufacturing capacities worldwide” but said shortages may last until 2023 for chips outsourced to foundries.

“Since the geopolitical and macroeconomic situation has deteriorated in recent months, reliable assessments regarding the end of the present shortages are hardly possible right now,” Infineon said in a statement.

Taiwan chipmaker United Microelectronics Corp told Reuters it has been able to reallocate some capacity to auto chips due to weaker demand in other segments. “On the whole, it is still challenging for us to meet the aggregate demand from customers,” the company said.

TrendForce analyst Galen Tseng told Reuters that if auto suppliers needed 100 PMIC chips – which regulate voltage from the battery to more than 100 applications in an average car – they were currently only getting around 80.

MAIN PHOTO: Cars drive along a main road in central Beijing on January 12, 2012. REUTERS/David Gray/File Photo

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