AIG, Robert E. Lighthizer, Made in China 2025, and the Semiconductors Bull Market

 

“The icon of modern conservatism, Ronald Reagan, imposed quotas on imported steel, protected Harley-Davidson from Japanese competition, restrained import of semiconductors and automobiles, and took myriad similar steps to keep American industry strong. How does allowing China to constantly rig trade in its favour advance the core conservative goal of making markets more efficient? Markets do not run better when manufacturing shifts to China largely because of the actions of its government.” – Robert E. Lighthizer

 

“Patience is essential. We should step back, take a deep breath and examine carefully the ties that bind us together.” Maurice “Hank” Greenberg, former CEO of American International Group, at the congressional hearing on US-China economic ties in May 1996

 

American International Group (AIG), the once venerable multinational insurance group, was founded in 1919 in Shanghai, where it prospered until the communists forced it to leave in 1950. AIG had to wait over four decades to re-enter the Chinese market. In 1992, AIG became the first foreign insurance company licensed to operate in China and established its first office on the Mainland in Shanghai.

We doubt it was sentiment that led China to grant AIG the license. After all, there is little room for sentiment in the high-stakes game of global trade.

In 1990, Maurice “Hank” Greenberg, then chief executive of AIG, had been appointed as the first chairman of the International Business Leaders’ Advisory Council for the Mayor of Shanghai. In 1994, Mr Greenberg was appointed as senior economic advisor to the Beijing Municipal Government. In 1996, at the time when China’s status as Most Favoured Nation (MFN)[1] was under threat due to a resolution put forth to the House of Representatives in the US, he was appointed as the Chairman of the US-China Business Council.

While all of above mentioned appointments may have raised an eyebrow or two, they do not amount to much in and of themselves. When we throw in the fact that Mr Greenberg had been part of the President’s Advisory Committee for Trade Policy and Negotiations since the 1970s – the official private-sector advisory committee to the Office of the US Trade Representative – we begin to realise the possible reason why the Chinese leadership took a liking to Mr Greenberg and afforded his company the luxury of becoming the first foreign insurer to operate in China.

In May 1996, Mr Greenberg, during a key congressional hearing on US-Sino economic ties, testified in favour of not only renewing China’s MFN status but also making it permanent.

There we have it: quid pro quo.

In June 1996, the House of Representatives endorsed China’s MFN status by a vote of 286 to 141. At the time of vote AIG had eleven lobbyists representing its interests in Washington. One of those lobbyists was Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom, where AIG’s affairs were handled by one Robert E. Lighthizer – the current United States Trade Representative.


 

Senior American and Chinese officials concluded two days of negotiations on trade and technology related grievances the Trump Administration has with China. As many may have suspected, the talks appear to have achieved little despite the US sending a team comprised of top-level officials including Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer, White House trade advisor Peter Navarro, Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross, and National Economic Advisor Larry Kudlow.

As part of the talk the US representatives have submitted an extensive list of trade and technology related demands. In our opinion, the demands represent a hodgepodge of objectives as opposed to one or two key strategic objectives the Trump Administration may have – symptomatic of the differing views held by the various members of the US team. We expect US Trade Representative Robert E. Lighthizer to slowly take control of proceedings and to set the agenda for US-China trade relations – after all he is the only senior member of the team with meaningful experience in negotiating bilateral international agreements.

Mr Lighthizer’s primary objectives with respect to US-Sino trade relations are (1) for China to open up its economy – by removing tariffs and ownership limits – for the benefit of Corporate America and (2) to put an end to Chinese practices that erode the competitive advantages enjoyed by US corporations – practices such as forcing technology transfer as a condition for market access.

Mr Lighthizer’s goals are ambitious. They will require time and patience from everyone – including President Trump, Chinese officials, US allies, and investors. For that, he will need to focus Mr Trump’s attention on China. He will not want the President continuing his thus far ad hoc approach to US trade policy. If NAFTA and other trade deals under negotiations with allies such as South Korea are dealt with swiftly, we would take that as a clear signal that Mr Lighthizer is in control of driving US trade policy.

 


 

Unveiled in 2015, “Made in China 2025” is China’s broad-based industrial strategy for it to become a leader in the field of advanced manufacturing. The strategy calls for directed government subsidies, heavy investments in research and innovation, and targets for local manufacturing content.

To date, China’s industrial base is dominated by manufacturing of basic consumer products such as clothing, shoes and consumer electronics. The overwhelming majority of technologically advanced exports out of China have been made by multinational companies. The Made in China 2025 strategy identifies ten key areas – such as robotics, electric and fuel-cell vehicles, aerospace, semiconductors, agricultural machinery and biomedicine – where China aims to become a global leader. And it is these very industries that Mr Lighthizer aims to attack for the benefit of Corporate America.

One area where China is clearly at the cutting edge of global research is artificial intelligence. According to research published by the University of Toronto, 23 per cent of the authors of papers presented at the 2017 Advancement of Artificial Intelligence Conference were Chinese, compared to just 10 per cent in 2012. And we suspect, especially given the Chinese leadership’s dystopian leanings, China is going to be unwilling to relent on its progress in artificial intelligence regardless of the amount of pressure the Trump Administration applies.

Artificial intelligence requires immense amounts of computing power. Computers are powered by semiconductors. China cannot risk its AI ambitions by being hostage to semiconductor companies that fall under the US sphere of influence. China, we believe, will pull out all the stops over the next decade to develop its local semiconductor industry manufacturing capabilities with an aim to end its reliance on US-based manufacturers by 2030.

 

Investment Perspective

 

Investors often talk about the one dominant factor that drives a stock. While we consider capital markets to be more nuanced than that, if semiconductor stocks have a dominant factor it surely has to be supply – it certainly is not trailing price-to-earnings multiples as semiconductor stocks, such as Micron, have been known to crash when trading at very low trailing multiples. Chinese supply in semiconductors is coming.

While we expect the bull market in tech stocks to re-establish itself sometime this year, if there was one area we would avoid it would be semiconductors.

 

 

[1] From Wikipedia: MFN is a status or level of treatment accorded by one state to another in international trade. The term means the country which is the recipient of this treatment must nominally receive equal trade advantages as the “most favoured nation” by the country granting such treatment. (Trade advantages include low tariffs or high import quotas.) In effect, a country that has been accorded MFN status may not be treated less advantageously than any other country with MFN status by the promising country. There is a debate in legal circles whether MFN clauses in bilateral investment treaties include only substantive rules or also procedural protections.

 

 

This post should not be considered as investment advice or a recommendation to purchase any particular security, strategy or investment product. References to specific securities and issuers are not intended to be, and should not be interpreted as, recommendations to purchase or sell such securities. Information contained herein

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