Will the CHIPS Act save tech?

In an instant, government regulation and/or subsidies can change the course of private business. And we may be in the midst of such a change right now. Signed into law by President Biden on Tuesday, the CHIPS and Science Act promises a whopping $280 billion for technology research, development and manufacturing.

It is, in a word, big. After the beating that Big Tech has taken this year, this comes as welcome news to many investors. The markets sure seem appreciative, with all three of the major indices rallying after Tuesday’s signing.

But you and I both know that things are rarely as simple as the markets think. So let’s break this monster bill down a little.

All that and a bag of chips

The bill’s biggest selling point is its plan to increase domestic production of semiconductors – the coveted microchips that run everything from cars to computers to electric toothbrushes. It actually covers far more ground than just that, but let us focus on the part that is most immediately relevant for investors.

This “chips” section of the bill earmarks $52 billion to subsidize semiconductor manufacturers who set up shop in the U.S. It has two main goals in doing so:

  1. To give the U.S. a bigger competitive edge in the global electronics market;
  2. To ease the chip shortage that has throttled supply chains recently.

It seems to have had the desired effect so far. For one thing, microchip giants Micron and Qualcomm have already announced sizable commitments. And, again, it gave the markets a gratifying boost. But…

Overinflated expectations?

The CHIPS Act could indeed be an exciting development for US tech, industry, and the overall economy. But some big questions need to be answered before I would really buy into it. For example:

  1. Is the CHIPS subsidy really big enough to entice manufacturers? Suppose ten firms in total take advantage of the subsidies. A quick look at, say, Qualcomm’s recent tax burden suggests that a tenth of the total $52B would be worth their while. On the other hand, the taxes for market-leader Intel have been all over the place – so we must wait to hear from their CEO on whether or not they will be interested.
  2. Is it big enough to affect their balance sheets in a substantial way? Even if other firms jump on the bandwagon, that does not necessarily mean they will benefit from doing so in the long term. Even if they do, that benefit may only be marginal. Increasing US-based manufacturing is one thing, but increasing overalloutput – and profits – is another.
  3. If 1) and 2) are true, what is our timeline to expect some ROI from these companies? This is very hard to predict, as different recipients of the funds may do wildly different things with them. To use the examples of Qualcomm and Micron again, the former has announced a $4.2B expansion to one of their existing plants, while the latter will shell out $40B in new capacity spending.  

Is the CHIPS Act a no-brainer buy signal for investors?

Let me put it this way; the CHIPS Act dangles some very attractive incentives in front of semiconductor manufacturing companies to increase their U.S. based production. The true reveal will be in the coming weeks as we hear from chip manufacturers on how they plan to respond.

Top 10 Largest Chip Manufacturers in the U.S.

But if I had to guess I would say yes, this bill is probably good for investors in the semiconductor space. Again, it is a bit too early to be sure, but this is certainly worth keeping a close eye on!