US-China trade tensions weigh on chipmakers, Apple ahead of G-20 summit

  • Citi believes it's likely the White House will crack down on U.S. exports, with an extreme scenario including a ban on sales of U.S. semiconductor components to China.
  • The U.S. semiconductor industry generates 30 percent of total revenue from China, with Qualcomm and Micron accruing more than half of sales from trade with Beijing.
  • More spillover from U.S.-China trade hostilities would also hurt Apple, Citi said, which assembles iPhones in China with chips imported from the U.S.
Chinese customers visit an Apple Store in Hong Kong. 
Marcio Rodrigo Machado | S3studio | Getty Images
Chinese customers visit an Apple Store in Hong Kong. 

Technology companies including semiconductor giants and iPhone maker Apple have the most to lose from further U.S.-China trade tensions as world leaders gather at the Group of 20 summit later this month, according to Citigroup.

Though Citi researchers' base case is that the two economic powerhouses will reach a "preliminary understanding" on trade at the Buenos Aires meeting, the analysts also expect President Donald Trump's administration to continue to impose more trade and investment restrictions on China.

Specifically, Citi says it's likely the White House will crack down on certain U.S. exports, with an extreme scenario including a ban on sales of U.S. semiconductor components to China. That could have an outsized impact since China is one of the largest end markets for U.S. semiconductors, generating about 30 percent of total revenue for the industry.

"The U.S. Department of Defense considers China a rising strategic competitor, and according to the U.S. Trade Representative, China has conducted industrial espionage and other market-distorting practices," Citi's Cesar Rojas and Catherine Mann wrote Tuesday. "The temporary impact on the semiconductor sector of a total ban on U.S. product to ship in to China would be devastating to the industry, as much of the largest end market products for semiconductors (PCs, cell phones, consumer electronics) are manufactured in China."

Such a decision could send shock waves across the sector, including San Diego's Qualcomm and Boise's Micro, which generate 65 percent and 57 percent of their revenue from China, respectively. Semiconductor capital equipment manufacturers — which build and sell machines used in electronic devices — could also take a hit.

Rojas and Mann highlighted the negative impact trade restrictions have had at Ichor Holdings and Applied Materials, which have both lost nearly one-third of their market value in 2018. But additional trade barriers could also spell more trouble for the largest U.S. company, Apple.

The iPhone maker's stock has rallied and retreated over the past year, tracking dovish and hawkish trade comments between Washington and Beijing. Apple's stock fell Tuesday, for instance, after Trump suggested he could place a 10 percent tariff on iPhones and laptops imported from China and said it's "highly unlikely" that he would delay an increase in tariffs to 25 percent from 10 percent on Jan. 1.

Apple's products are currently exempt from the tariffs. It previously announced that the tariffs would affect the Apple Watch, AirPods and other products, but these were spared when the tariffs were announced. While iPhones are assembled in China, several parts required to make the smartphones are imported from the U.S.

"Most technologies include intellectual property (IP) that is sourced in the United States," the Citi researchers added. "Should the ban of exports to China cause this IP to not be included in the semiconductor chips, programming code of the operating system, or security which is encrypted, etc, this scenario could pose a problem for many U.S. companies. When we assess our coverage, the company with the most exposure is Apple who has approximately 20 percent of its sales in China."

Though Citi noted that a total ban represents a severe case, the Trump White House has not shied away from strong intervention to protect American intellectual property. In an unusual move for a sitting president, Trump killed Broadcom's proposed buyout of Qualcomm in March, citing national security concerns.

"There is credible evidence that leads me to believe that Broadcom Limited, a limited company organized under the laws of Singapore (Broadcom)...through exercising control of Qualcomm Incorporated (Qualcomm), a Delaware corporation, might take action that threatens to impair the national security of the United States," the White House said in a statement at the time.

Both companies were ordered to immediately abandon the proposed deal, and the order prohibited all 15 of Broadcom's proposed candidates for Qualcomm's board from standing for election.