US curbs on China tech is turbo charging chip investments

US curbs
Image credit | Igor Kutyaev

SHANGHAI (Reuters) – US curbs on Chinese tech firms amid the intensifying Sino-US battle for tech supremacy are feeding an investment boom across China’s semiconductor industry, driving prices of both publicly traded and venture-backed companies into bubble territory.

Investors have pushed the share prices of the country’s 45 listed chipmakers to over 100 times the companies’ earnings, making semiconductors the priciest sector in the stock market.

There is also a scramble for pre-listing deals, as venture capitalists once focused on consumer internet companies turn their attention to chips. Such investment in the sector almost doubled to 22 billion yuan ($3.11 billion) in two years through 2019, showed data from Zero2IPO.

“It’s not just the government, it’s the private sector too – everyone in China is trying to invest in something related to semiconductors,” said Jin-biao Huang, co-founder of six-year-old Nuvolta, a maker of chips for wireless charging.

Many startups have yet to market products or prove long-term business value, prompting investors and analysts to warn of an asset-price bubble. But with the government re-doubling efforts to support a home-grown chip industry and no end in sight to Sino-US tension, enthusiasm reigns.

“Ten years ago, you could fit all of China’s semiconductor investors around two tables,” said Alan Peng, founder of chip startup NextVPU. “Nowadays there are hundreds of people crowding around those same two tables.”

Internet slowdown

Until recently, China’s semiconductor sector was heavily reliant on the government. The National Integrated Circuit Industry Investment Fund, popularly known as “the big fund”, put up 139 billion yuan for chip projects in 2014. It added 204 billion yuan last year.

Private investors previously shunned the capital-intensive sector in favour of burgeoning consumer internet companies, such as gaming and social media leader Tencent Holdings Ltd and food delivery service Meituan Dianping.

A slowdown in the internet sector has prompted investors to look for alternatives. US import tariffs as well as national security restrictions on China’s Huawei Technologies Co Ltd and others buying US tech are opening up options.

“You won’t get the growth that you got in the last 20 years in China looking for the next Tencent or Meituan,” said Wayne Shiong, partner at China Growth Capital. “But if you look at chips, there’s a huge kind of market opportunity.”

Valuations for Chinese chip-related companies – most little-known in the global industry – have soared accordingly.

When optical chip startup North Ocean Photonics raised angel funding from Shanghai-based New Vision Capital in 2017, the firm was worth tens of millions of yuan. In March, when its latest fundraising round closed, its valuation exceeded 1 billion yuan.

“Suddenly, money is gushing into this sector,” said Kay Li, a partner at New Vision Capital.

Publicly listed firms, many trading on the new tech-focused STAR market, are seeing valuation spikes as well.

Advanced Micro-Fabrication Equipment Inc, which makes etching equipment for chip manufacturing, has seen its share price jump 150% since January. Its price-to-earnings ratio sits at a stratospheric 540.

Domestic replacement

Industry participants divide China’s chip companies into two groups. One is focused on replacing chips as well as chip-making parts and equipment that domestic technology firms currently import.

Bob Zhao, investment director at New Access Capital, said his venture capital firm committed to investing in Shenzhen-based battery management specialist One-micro Semiconductor because the sector is dominated by US and Japanese companies so has huge potential in China.

Manufacturers such as Huawei are “looking for spare tyre and replacement schemes,” Zhao said.

The second group relates to artificial intelligence (AI). AI chipmakers such as Enflame, backed by Tencent, and Horizon Robotics, backed by South Korean chipmaker SK Hynix Inc, have enjoyed soaring valuations.

Still, both sectors carry plenty of risk.

“If all you’re doing is investing in a chip that’s cheaper than something made overseas, then anyone can do it, and no one will make any margins,” said Jerry Bai, partner at Glory Ventures.

Also, many such companies have yet to prove themselves.

Cambricon, an AI chip company set to list on the STAR market this year, in its prospectus said it booked revenue of 444 million yuan in 2019 and a net loss of 1.18 billion yuan.

After losing business with Huawei, Cambricon now earns almost half of its revenue from a single municipal government branch.

“They have no real customers and a huge loss, but they can still pass the listing process because the government wants to support AI and semiconductors,” said one former chip investor.

Cambricon did not respond to a request for comment.

(Reporting by Josh Horwitz and Samuel Shen; Editing by Jonathan Weber and Christopher Cushing)

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