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Countries lavish subsidies and perks on semiconductor manufacturers as a global chip war heats up

In an era of industrial nationalism, the Senate’s endorsement of $52 billion in subsidies for computer-chip manufacturing is just one bid in the global competition to secure production of the critical component

An employee of semiconductor manufacturer Bosch works in Dresden, Germany, on May 31. (Jens Schlueter/AFP/Getty Images)

When a semiconductor company opens a factory in Taiwan, the government covers almost half of the land and construction costs and 25 percent of the equipment costs. In Singapore, government subsidies cut the cost of owning a computer-chip factory by more than a quarter.

Europe is cranking up financial incentives, too. And in China, the government is on track to spend as much as $200 billion to subsidize semiconductor companies through 2025.

The bonanza of perks, detailed in a White House report last week, shows what the United States is up against as it attempts to entice more manufacturers to build domestic factories to produce computer chips, the precious electronics now in short supply.

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The United States came closer to entering the subsidy competition last week when a rare bipartisan vote in the Senate endorsed legislation funneling $52 billion into new chip manufacturing and research. The measure, supported by President Biden, still must clear the House.

But even if it does, the United States will continue facing stiff global competition to attract the factories that make the cutting-edge technology as countries around the world, riding a wave of industrial nationalism, attempt to secure their own manufacturing rather than relying on imports in an uncertain world.

Some Asian nations have long subsidized their chip and hardware manufacturers. But the trend is spreading to more regions, and the perks are growing in size, partly as a reaction against globalization and the dissatisfaction it brought many workers in the developed world, who lost jobs as manufacturing shifted overseas.

It’s also a response to the coronavirus pandemic, which sent countries into lockdown and disrupted global supply chains, leaving many Western nations without the medical equipment and other essential goods they needed to fight the virus and restart their economies.

Perhaps most of all, it’s a response to the enormous sums the Chinese government is investing in its domestic tech industries, a trend U.S. lawmakers and officials fear could further erode U.S. economic might if left unaddressed.

“We are in a competition to win the 21st century, and the starting gun has gone off,” Biden said after the Senate endorsed the bill. “As other countries continue to invest in their own research and development, we cannot risk falling behind. America must maintain its position as the most innovative and productive nation on Earth.”

The urgency of competing with China has persuaded even some Republicans to embrace more government intervention in the U.S. economy, an approach known as industrial policy that is typically more associated with Democrats.

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Critics of the chip subsidies question the need to throw billions of taxpayer funds at a profitable industry and warn that the incentives arms race could create a glut of production.

“Congress should work to expand U.S. microchip production” but “should not be handing out $53 billion in corporate welfare to some of the largest and most profitable corporations in the country with no strings attached,” Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) tweeted last month. He was the only Democrat to vote against the legislation.

Willy Shih, a Harvard Business School professor who specializes in technology and manufacturing, called the U.S. subsidy plan “worrisome.”

“All the lobbyists are out there trying to ensure their firms ‘get their share’ with less focus on how the money will be precisely spent, or the outcomes measured,” he said by email.

Sen. Mark R. Warner (D-Va.), who led the push for the funding along with Sen. John Cornyn (R-Tex.), said the United States has no choice but to subsidize, given the incentives other nations are offering.

“We need that supply chain here in the United States,” he told reporters last week. Semiconductor factories are among the most expensive manufacturing facilities to build, costing $10 billion or more because of their specialized machinery.

Thomas Sonderman, chief executive of Minnesota-based chip manufacturer SkyWater Technology, said the company hopes to use some of the subsidies to accelerate expansion of its factory in Bloomington, Minn. The automotive industry is one customer of SkyWater’s chips, using them to power dashboard displays. Appliance manufacturers and the Defense Department also use them.

SkyWater will add equipment to the facility with or without subsidies because of soaring demand, but can buy the machinery faster with federal support, Sonderman said, estimating the total investment to be $250 million.

With federal funding, SkyWater could double output at the factory in six to 12 months, he said. “If we did it without that funding, then you are getting into years’ time frame,” he said.

The incentives game is also heating up over lithium-ion batteries, an essential component of the new green economy. The batteries power electric vehicles and store renewable energy for utility companies. They are also expected to become increasingly important for powering aircraft and military equipment such as drones.

The European Union this year said it would spend $3.5 billion to subsidize Tesla, BMW and other companies to produce lithium-ion batteries in Europe and help cut imports from China.

India last month said it would offer $2.5 billion in subsidies for battery production to support a “Make-In-India” strategy. And the United States has begun laying out a blueprint to support domestic producers of batteries and their components, a subject Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm will address at a summit Monday.

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Still, semiconductors are the most intense battleground. The tiny components are the brains behind most modern electronics, from refrigerators and vacuum cleaners to mobile phones, aircraft and cars. The auto industry has been hit particularly hard by the chip shortage, forced to idle factories across the United States and in parts of Europe.

When Pat Gelsinger, the chief executive of U.S. chip giant Intel, visited Europe this spring to scout potential locations for a new factory, officials rolled out the red carpet. European nations are aiming to use part of a 145 billion euro digital fund — about $175 billion — to finance chip investments and double their share of worldwide chip manufacturing by 2030, to 20 percent of the $540 billion global market.

In Germany, Gelsinger met with Economy Minister Peter Altmaier and Bavarian governor Markus Soeder and visited executives from BMW and Deutsche Telekom. He also met with E.U. Commissioners Margrethe Vestager and Thierry Breton, with the latter tweeting a photo of their summit. Europe “is determined to take back leadership in global #semiconductor production,” said Breton, who has also courted Taiwanese chip giant TSMC.

In a declaration in December, European nations said that a “new geopolitical, industrial and technological reality” was redefining the tech landscape.

“In what has long been a global business, major regions are reinforcing their local semiconductor ecosystems with a view to avoiding excessive dependencies on imports,” they said.

The Senate bill, led by Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) and Sen. Todd C. Young (R-Ind.), dedicates federal funds to industrial aims beyond chips. It earmarks $10 billion for the Commerce Department to establish regional tech hubs that would help create new companies and boost manufacturing and workforce training.

It authorizes an extra $81 billion for the National Science Foundation over five years, partly to fund a new directorate of technology and innovation to accelerate the commercialization of technology in fields such as artificial intelligence, robotics and advanced computing.

And it gives $16.9 billion to the Energy Department over four years for research and development and “energy-related supply chain activities,” which could involve supporting battery production.

Of the $52 billion set aside for semiconductors, three quarters would go directly to chipmakers that are expanding existing factories or building new ones. Of that money, $2 billion is reserved for production of chips of older designs, which are used by automakers, the military and other industries.

Another $10.5 billion would fund a new National Semiconductor Technology Center, which would be equipped with advanced tools that start-ups could use to test and prototype new chip technology.