Analysis: How idled car factories super-charged a push for U.S. chip subsidies

(Reuters) – When President Joe Biden on Wednesday stood at a lectern holding a microchip and pledged to support $37 billion in federal subsidies for American semiconductor manufacturing, it marked a political breakthrough that happened much more quickly than industry insiders had expected.

For years, chip industry executives and U.S. government officials have been concerned about the slow drift of costly chip factories to Taiwan and Korea. While major American companies such as Qualcomm Inc and Nvidia Corp dominate their fields, they depend on factories abroad to build the chips they design.

As tensions with China heated up last year, U.S. lawmakers authorized manufacturing subsidies as part of an annual military spending bill due to concerns that depending on foreign factories for advanced chips posed national security risks. Yet funding for the subsidies was not guaranteed.

Then came the auto-chip crunch. Ford Motor Co said a lack of chips could slash a fifth of its first-quarter production and General Motors Co cut output across North America.

“It brings home very clearly the message that the semiconductor is really a critical component in a lot of the end products we take for granted,” said Mike Rosa, head of strategic and technical marketing for a group within semiconductor manufacturing toolmaker Applied Materials Inc that sells tools to automotive chip factories.

Within weeks, automakers joined chip companies calling for chip factory subsidies, and U.S. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer and President Biden both pledged to fight for funding.

Industry backers now aim to be part of a package of legislation to counter China that Schumer hopes to bring to the Senate floor this spring. Still, all agree it will do little to solve the immediate auto-chip problem.

Headlines about idled car plants resonated with the public that had shrugged off abstract warnings in the past, said Jim Lewis, a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. Lawmakers, already worried that a promised infrastructure bill will not materialize this year, decided to push for quick solution.

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