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Why Shortages of a $1 Chip Sparked Crisis in the Global Economy

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(Bloomberg) — To understand why the $450 billion semiconductor industry has lurched into crisis, a helpful place to start is a one-dollar part called a display driver.

Hundreds of different kinds of chips make up the global silicon industry, with the flashiest ones from Qualcomm Inc. and Intel Corp. going for $100 apiece to more than $1,000. Those run powerful computers or the shiny smartphone in your pocket. A display driver is mundane by contrast: Its sole purpose is to convey basic instructions for illuminating the screen on your phone, monitor or navigation system.

The trouble for the chip industry — and increasingly companies beyond tech, like automakers — is that there aren’t enough display drivers to go around. Firms that make them can’t keep up with surging demand so prices are spiking. That’s contributing to short supplies and increasing costs for liquid crystal display panels, essential components for making televisions and laptops, as well as cars, airplanes and high-end refrigerators.

“It’s not like you can just make do. If you have everything else, but you don’t have a display driver, then you can’t build your product,” says Stacy Rasgon, who covers the semiconductor industry for Sanford C. Bernstein.

Now the crunch in a handful of such seemingly insignificant parts — power management chips are also in short supply, for example — is cascading through the global economy. Automakers like Ford Motor Co., Nissan Motor Co. and Volkswagen AG have already scaled back production, leading to estimates for more than $60 billion in lost revenue for the industry this year.

The situation is likely to get worse before it gets better. A rare winter storm in Texas knocked out swaths of U.S. production. A fire at a key Japan factory will shut the facility for a month. Samsung Electronics Co. warned of a “serious imbalance” in the industry, while Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Co. said it can’t keep up with demand despite running factories at more than 100% of capacity.

“I have never seen anything like this in the past 20 years since our company’s founding,” said Jordan Wu, co-founder and chief executive officer of Himax Technologies Co., a leading supplier of display drivers. “Every application is short of chips.”

The chip crunch was born out of an understandable miscalculation as the coronavirus pandemic hit last year. When Covid-19 began spreading from China to the rest of the world, many companies anticipated people would cut back as times got tough.

“I slashed all my projections. I was using the financial crisis as the model,” says Rasgon. “But demand was just really resilient.”

People stuck at home started buying technology — and then kept buying. They purchased better computers and bigger displays so they could work remotely. They got their kids new laptops for distance learning. They scooped up 4K televisions, game consoles, milk frothers, air fryers and immersion blenders to make life under quarantine more palatable. The pandemic turned into an extended Black Friday onlinepalooza.

Automakers were blindsided. They shut factories during the lockdown while demand crashed because no one could get to showrooms. They told suppliers to stop shipping components, including the chips that are increasingly essential for cars.

Then late last year, demand began to pick up. People wanted to get out and they didn’t want to use public transportation. Automakers reopened factories and went hat in hand to chipmakers like TSMC and Samsung. Their response? Back of the line. They couldn’t make chips fast enough for their still-loyal customers.

Himax’s Jordan Wu is in the middle of the tech industry’s tempest. On a recent March morning, the bespectacled 61-year-old agreed to meet at his Taipei office to discuss the shortages and why they are so challenging to resolve. He was eager enough to talk that interview was scheduled for the same morning Bloomberg News requested it, with two of his staff joining in person and another two dialing in by phone. He wore a mask throughout the interview, speaking carefully and articulately.

Wu founded Himax in 2001 with his brother Biing-seng, now the company’s chairman. They started out making driver ICs (for integrated circuits), as they’re known in the industry, for notebook computers and monitors. They went public in 2006 and grew with the computer industry, expanding into smartphones, tablets and touch screens. Their chips are now used in scores of products, from phones and televisions to automobiles.

Wu explained that he can’t make more display drivers by pushing his workforce harder. Himax designs display drivers and then has them manufactured at a foundry like TSMC or United Microelectronics Corp. His chips are made on what’s artfully called “mature node” technology, equipment at least a couple generations behind the cutting-edge processes. These machines etch lines in silicon at a width of 16 nanometers or more, compared with 5 nanometers for high-end chips.​

​The bottleneck is that these mature chip-making lines are running flat out. Wu says the pandemic drove such strong demand that manufacturing partners can’t make enough display drivers for all the panels that go into computers, televisions and game consoles — plus all the new products that companies are putting screens into, like refrigerators, smart thermometers and car-entertainment systems.

There’s been a particular squeeze in driver ICs for automotive systems because they’re usually made on 8-inch silicon wafers, rather than more advanced 12-inch wafers. Sumco Corp., one of the leading wafer manufacturers, reported production capacity for 8-inch equipment lines was about 5,000 wafers a month in 2020 — less than it was in 2017.

No one is building more mature-node manufacturing lines because it doesn’t make economic sense. The existing lines are fully depreciated and fine-tuned for almost perfect yields, meaning basic display drivers can be made for less than a dollar and more advanced versions for not much more. Buying new equipment and starting off at lower yields would mean much higher expenses.

“Building new capacity is too expensive,” Wu says. Peers like Novatek Microelectronics Corp., also based in Taiwan, have the same constraints.

That shortfall is showing up in a spike in LCD prices. A 50-inch LCD panel for televisions doubled in price between January 2020 and this March. Bloomberg Intelligence’s Matthew Kanterman projects that LCD prices will keep rising at least until the third quarter. There is a “a dire shortage” of display driver chips, he said.

Aggravating the situation is a lack of glass. Major glass makers reported accidents at their production sites, including a blackout at a Nippon Electric Glass Co.’s factory in December and an explosion at AGC Fine Techno Korea’s factory in January. Production will likely remain constrained at least through summer this year, display consultancy DSCC Co-founder Yoshio Tamura said.

On April 1, I-O Data Device Inc., a major Japanese computer peripherals maker, raised the price of their 26 LCD monitors by 5,000 yen on average, the biggest increase since they began selling the monitors two decades ago. A spokeswoman said the company can’t make any profit without the increases due to rising costs for components.

All of this has been a boon to Himax’s business. Sales are surging and its stock price has tripled since November.

But the CEO isn’t celebrating. His whole business is built around giving customers what they want, so his inability to meet their requests at such a critical time is frustrating. He doesn’t expect the crunch, especially for automotive components, to end any time soon.

“We have not reached a position where we can see the light at the end of tunnel yet,” Wu said.

©2021 Bloomberg L.P.

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New Zealand's Economy Was Humming Prior to Delta Lockdown – BNN

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(Bloomberg) — New Zealand’s economy was expanding at a rapid pace before a nationwide lockdown interrupted its momentum, latest data show. 

Gross domestic product climbed 2.8% in the second quarter after jumping 1.4% in the first, Statistics New Zealand said Thursday in Wellington. Economists forecast a 1.1% gain. From a year earlier, when the country was in its initial pandemic lockdown, the economy expanded 17.4% against expectations of 16.1% growth.

Today’s report will do nothing to dissuade the central bank from raising interest rates at its next meeting on Oct. 6 as it frets about mounting inflation pressures. While a contraction is expected in the current quarter after an outbreak of the delta strain of coronavirus prompted a three-week national lockdown, last year’s experience shows that demand quickly bounces back when restrictions are lifted. 

The New Zealand dollar rose on the data. It bought 71.29 U.S. cents at 10:47 a.m. in Wellington, up from 71.2 cents beforehand.

©2021 Bloomberg L.P.

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Global economy projected to show fastest growth in 50 years – UN News

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In its new report released on Wednesday, the agency said that the rebound was highly uneven along regional, sectoral and income lines, however.  

During 2022, UNCTAD expects global growth to slow to 3.6 per cent, leaving world income levels trailing some 3.7 per cent below the pre-pandemic trend line. 

The report also warns that growth deceleration could be bigger than expected, if policymakers lose their nerve or answer what it regards as misguided calls for a return to deregulation and austerity. 


Two women check industrial looms in a rug factory in Mongolia. International rules and practices have locked developing countries into pre-pandemic responses

Differences in growth 

The report says that, while the response saw an end to public spending constraints in many developed countries, international rules and practices have locked developing countries into pre-pandemic responses, and a semi-permanent state of economic stress. 

Many countries in the South have been hit much harder than during the global financial crisis. With a heavy debt burden, they also have less room for maneuvering their way out through public spending. 

Lack of monetary autonomy and access to vaccines are also holding many developing economies back, widening the gulf with advanced economies and threatening to usher in another “lost decade”. 

“These widening gaps, both domestic and international, are a reminder that underlying conditions, if left in place, will make resilience and growth luxuries enjoyed by fewer and fewer privileged people,” said Rebeca Grynspan, the secretary-general of UNCTAD. 

“Without bolder policies that reflect reinvigorated multilateralism, the post-pandemic recovery will lack equity, and fail to meet the challenges of our time.” 

Lessons of the pandemic 

UNCTAD includes several proposals in the report that are drawn from the lessons of the pandemic. 

They include concerted debt relief and even cancellation in some cases, a reassessment of fiscal policy, greater policy coordination and strong support for developing countries in vaccine deployment. 


Women sell fruit and vegetables on a sidewalk in the Philippines, where workers in the informal economy are in danger of having their livelihoods destroyed by the impacts of COVID-19.

ILO/Minette Rimando.

Women sell fruit and vegetables on a sidewalk in the Philippines, where workers in the informal economy are in danger of having their livelihoods destroyed by the impacts of COVID-19.

Even without significant setbacks, global output will only resume its 2016-19 trend by 2030. But even before COVID-19, the income growth trend was unsatisfactory, says UNCTAD. Average annual global growth in the decade after the global financial crisis was the slowest since 1945. 

Despite a decade of massive monetary injections from leading central banks, since the 2008-9 crash, inflation targets have been missed. Even with the current strong recovery in advanced economies, there is no sign of a sustained rise in prices. 

After decades of a declining wage share, real wages in advanced countries need to rise well above productivity for a long time before a better balance between wages and profits is achieved again, according to the trade and development body’s analysis. 

Food prices and global trade 

Despite current trends on inflation, UNCTAD believes the rise in food prices could pose a serious threat to vulnerable populations in the South, already financially weakened by the health crisis. 

Globally, international trade in goods and services has recovered, after a drop of 5.6 per cent in 2020. The downturn proved less severe than had been anticipated, as trade flows in the latter part of 2020 rebounded almost as strongly as they had fallen earlier. 


Lack of monetary autonomy and access to vaccines are also holding many developing economies back

Lack of monetary autonomy and access to vaccines are also holding many developing economies back, by ILO/K.B. Mpofu

The report’s modelling projections point to real growth of global trade in goods and services of 9.5 per cent in 2021. Still, the consequences of the crisis will continue to weigh on the trade performance in the years ahead. 

For director of UNCTAD’s globalization and development strategies division, Richard Kozul-Wright, “the pandemic has created an opportunity to rethink the core principles of international economic governance, a chance that was missed after the global financial crisis.” 

“In less than a year, wide-ranging US policy initiatives in the United States have begun to effect concrete change in the case of infrastructure spending and expanded social protection, financed through more progressive taxation. The next logical step is to take this approach to the multilateral level.” 

The report highlights a “possibility of a renewal of multilateralism”, pointing to the United States support of a new special drawing rights (SDR) allocation, global minimum corporate taxation, and a waiver of vaccine-related intellectual property rights.  

UNCTAD warns, though, that these proposals “will need much stronger backing from other advanced economies and the inclusion of developing country voices if the world is to tackle the excesses of hyperglobalization and the deepening environmental crisis in a timely manner.” 

For the UN agency, the biggest risk for the global economy is that “a rebound in the North will divert attention from long-needed reforms without which developing countries will remain in a weak and vulnerable position.”

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From Coordination to Collapse in Rigged Economies – Physics

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September 15, 2021• Physics 14, 129

A game-theoretical model of a rigged economy predicts the emergence of cartels followed by a risk of instability as the economy becomes more complex.

Hans Holbein (1543)

Figure 1: King Henry VIII and the Barber Surgeons by Hans Holbein the Younger. Medieval guilds played negative as well as positive roles by rigging the economy: They acted as cartels to privilege their members while at the same time working in concert to promote property rights and to prevent the arbitrary use of power by monarchs.King Henry VIII and the Barber Surgeons by Hans Holbein the Younger. Medieval guilds played negative as well as positive roles by rigging the economy: They acted as cartels to privilege their members while at the same time working in concert to promo… Show more

“The economy is rigged!” This claim, which was voiced by both Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump during their 2016 presidential campaigns, might be the only belief shared by people from opposite ends of the political spectrum. But what does “rigging” mean for the economy and its dynamics? Luís Seoane at the National Center for Biotechnology in Spain has now addressed this question by modeling the economy as a system of “games” that agents can rig—for a price [1]. The study reveals that the rigged economy undergoes a sequence of transitions as its complexity and size increase, with “cartels” forming and then dissolving. Although these transitions appear to imply that economic development will ultimately make the economy fairer, Seoane shows that if an economy’s size does not keep pace with its rising complexity, large fluctuations in wealth distribution can occur, causing inequality to rise steeply and making the economy liable to collapse.

The use of games to study economic phenomena dates back to the work of John von Neumann in the middle of the last century [2]. The theory quickly became the lingua franca for economists and subsequently emerged as an area of inquiry for the physics community. For example, statistical physicists have shown that versions of the “minority game”—in which several agents choose between two possibilities, with the option chosen by fewest agents becoming the winning choice—can be used to explore the rich emergent properties of simple adaptive systems [3].

Minority games can be used to model situations in which agents compete for scant resources—including financial markets. However, the economy is also marked by phenomena in which the advantage lies with those in the majority, for example, when positive feedback reinforces a particular choice, such as joining a boycott [4]. Seoane shows that rigged economies exhibit features of both minority and majority games [5, 6].

In Seoane’s model, multiple agents engage in a number of games simultaneously. Each game involves choosing one of two possible actions. An agent can also choose to pay to rig a game to favor its choice. The winning choice in each round is the action chosen by the majority of the agents who have paid to intervene. Increasing the number of games played in each round increases the degrees of freedom in the economy and is thus a measure of its complexity. After each round of a game, the winners share a fixed amount of money equally. The value of the winnings multiplied by the number of games played defines the total “wealth” that can be redistributed among the agents in each round. This wealth is thus a measure of the size of the economy and, along with complexity, is a key parameter of the model.

To observe how the optimal strategy for an agent changes as the economy develops, Seoane includes in the model an evolutionary process: Agents can replicate themselves after each round, such that each offspring has a high probability of adopting the same strategy as its parent. Since replication costs a fixed amount, more successful agents reproduce in greater numbers.

Seoane observes that, for a fixed level of complexity, a small economy yields agents with diverse strategies and a general preference to be in the minority when they win (to claim more of the prize pot in each round). As the economy increases in size, more wealth becomes available for agents to create progeny, as well as to pay the intervention costs required to rig games. Then, agents switch from playing minority games to majority games, meaning growing economies transition to coordination between agents (cartel formation), with an accompanying drop in strategic diversity. However, if the complexity (the number of games per round) increases faster than the economy grows, the relative returns per game are diminished, causing agents to seek minority positions across multiple games. This switch leads to the dissolution of cartels and a rise in the diversity of strategies employed by the agents.

Seoane also studies how an economy fares under other size-complexity relations. For example, he finds that when the amount disbursed in each game is constant, such that the size of the economy increases linearly with the number of games, there is a critical “complexity threshold” at which the distribution of agent-population size transitions from unimodal to bimodal. This transition gives rise to extremely large fluctuations in agent populations that threaten the stability of the economy. The distribution of agent wealth also exhibits a crossover at this point, becoming broad-tailed in the large-fluctuation regime, indicating rising inequality among agents. A reader familiar with the world’s economy today will likely see eerie parallels with this regime of the model.

It could be argued that some of the outcomes observed by Seoane come from the specific choices he makes in constructing the model. For example, the transition to coordinated action as the economy grows might result from the assumption that intervention costs are constant. In reality, intervention costs are related to the size of the economy and vary between players. Another important limitation of the model is that all agents are equally able to rig games—an assumption that misses the asymmetric influence of the wealthy in real economies [7].

Even with these limitations, Seoane’s model is significant in that it provides a framework for others to explore the ramifications of real-world rigged economies, such as those in which information is unevenly distributed among agents. Modifying the model might, for example, reveal how informationally disadvantaged agents can use the emergence of coordination to obtain advantage, as seen in other agent-based models [8]. Such counter-rigging of the system by less powerful players is shown by the history of the medieval merchant guilds. Those institutions used the threat of coordinated embargo to resist arbitrary expropriation by powerful local rulers [9], proving that a rigged economy does not necessarily imply that David doesn’t stand a chance against Goliath.

References

  1. L. F. Seoane, “Games in rigged economies,” Phys. Rev. X 11, 031058 (2021).
  2. J. von Neumann and O. Morgenstern, Theory of games and economic behavior (Princeton University Press, Princeton, 1944)[Amazon][WorldCat].
  3. D. Challet et al., Minority games: Interacting agents in financial markets (Oxford University Press, New York, 2005)[Amazon][WorldCat].
  4. T. C. Schelling, Micromotives and macrobehavior (W. W. Norton, New York, 1978)[Amazon][WorldCat].
  5. J. Vitting Andersen and D. Sornette, “The $-game,” Eur. Phys. J. B 31, 141 (2003).
  6. Y. Baek et al., “Market behavior and performance of different strategy evaluation schemes,” Phys. Rev. E 82, 026109 (2010).
  7. J. E. Stiglitz, “The American economy is rigged,” Sci. Am. 319, 56 (2018).
  8. V. Sasidevan et al., “When big data fails: Adaptive agents using coarse-grained information have competitive advantage,” Phys. Rev. E 98, 020301 (2018).
  9. A. Greif et al., “Coordination, commitment, and enforcement: The case of the merchant guild,” J. Polit. Econ. 102, 745 (1994).

About the Author

Image of Sitabhra Sinha

Sitabhra Sinha is a professor of theoretical physics and the dean of the Computational Biology Graduate Program at the Institute of Mathematical Sciences (IMSc) in India. He did his Ph.D. at the Indian Statistical Institute, Kolkata, and postdoctoral research at the Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore, and at the Weill Medical College of Cornell University, New York, joining the faculty of IMSc in 2002. His research falls broadly under complex systems, nonlinear dynamics, and statistical physics, with applications to systems biology, economic and social sciences, and computational linguistics.


Subject Areas

Complex Systems

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