A few months ago, makers of computer chips seemed on top of the world.
Customers could not get enough of the small slices of silicon, which act as the brains of computers and are needed in just about every device with an on-off switch. Demand was so strong — and U.S. dependence on a foreign manufacturer so worrying — that Democrats and Republicans agreed in July on a $52 billion subsidy package that included grants to build new chip factories in America.
U.S. chip makers such as Intel, Micron Technology, Texas Instruments and GlobalFoundries pledged huge expansions in domestic manufacturing, betting on a growing need for their products and the prospects of federal subsidies.
But lately, supplies of some semiconductors are piling up, which could spell good news for consumers but not for industry executives. Their bold investment plans are running into a sudden and unexpected slowdown in consumer demand for electronic gadgets, new U.S. restrictions on sales to customers in China, rising inflation and the unusual prospect of a simultaneous shortage of some chips and glut of others.
That has left chip makers, which had been looking ahead to immense demand and opportunity, suddenly grappling with immense challenges. Many of the companies now face complex questions about whether and when to boost production, amid uncertainty about how long the current sales slowdown may last.
“Six months ago, I would have said we were in this hypergrowth phase,” Rene Haas, chief executive of Arm, the British company whose chip technology powers billions of smartphones, said of the broader industry. Now, he said, “we’re in a pause.”
For many consumers, products that were scarce because of a chips shortage may start becoming more available, though not immediately. Automakers, which have struggled to make enough cars with the lack of chips and other components, said they were getting more but still face some problems. Prices of smartphones and computers could also fall as chip supplies grow and prices plummet for two types of memory chips they use.
But for now, not everyone is able to get all the chips they need, and prices remain high for many kinds of semiconductors. “We are still way above prepandemic pricing,” said Frank Cavallaro, chief executive of A2 Global Electronics and Solutions, a chip distributor.
Fears of a slump, which have clobbered semiconductor stocks this year, are evident in recent earnings announcements from chip makers. South Korea’s SK Hynix on Wednesday reported a 20 percent drop in revenue and said its business of memory chips “is facing an unprecedented deterioration in market conditions.” Intel is set to disclose more evidence of a downturn in its quarterly results on Thursday.
The Biden administration delivered its own blow this month with sweeping restrictions aimed at hobbling China from using U.S. technology related to chips. The measures restrict sales of some advanced chips to Chinese customers and prevent U.S. companies from helping China develop some kinds of chips.
That hurts semiconductor companies like Nvidia, which makes graphics chips used to run A.I. applications in China and elsewhere. The Silicon Valley company, already suffering from a sharp sales decline for video game applications, recently estimated that the U.S. restrictions would probably reduce revenues in its current quarter by about $400 million.
The sanctions may bite even harder at companies that sell chip-making equipment, which relied heavily in recent years on sales to Chinese factories.
Lam Research, which produces tools that etch silicon wafers to make chips, estimated that the China limitations would reduce its 2023 revenue by $2 billion to $2.5 billion. “We lost some very profitable customers in the China region, and that’s going to persist,” Doug Bettinger, Lam’s chief financial officer, said during an earnings call last week.
Applied Materials, the biggest maker of chip manufacturing tools, also said sales would suffer because of the restrictions. On Wednesday, another maker of chip manufacturing tools, KLA, said its revenue next year was likely to shrink by $600 million to $900 million as it reduces equipment sales and services to some customers in China.
Worries about foreign competition are nothing new in semiconductors, an industry known for boom-and-bust cycles. But it has rarely faced a player as potent as the Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Company
China claims Taiwan as its own territory, creating a potential risk to chip supplies. That helped drive the recent bipartisan support for the U.S. chip legislation, which was heavily pushed by President Biden.
He trekked to Ohio last month for the ground breaking of a $20 billion Intel manufacturing campus. On Thursday, he plans to visit a site near Syracuse, N.Y., where Micron has vowed to spend as much as $100 million over 20 years on a large complex to build memory chips.
Those plants will be needed at some point, industry executives said. But they are now grappling with the sudden and sharp decline in chip demand. The problem is particularly acute in processors and memory chips, which perform calculations and store data in personal computers, tablets, smartphones and other devices.
Those products were hot commodities as consumers worked from home during the coronavirus pandemic. But that boom has now cooled, with PC sales dropping 15 percent in the third quarter, according to estimates by International Data Corporation. The research firm also predicted that smartphone sales would fall 6.5 percent this year. Demand has been tempered by inflation as well as a lengthy Covid lockdown in China, analysts said.
At the same time, inventories of chips piled up. Computer makers spooked by the shortage bought more components than they ended up needing, said Dan Hutcheson, a market researcher at the firm TechInsights. When customer demand dried up, they started slashing orders.
“You see multiple issues converging,” said Syed Alam, who leads Accenture’s global high tech consulting practice, including semiconductors.
Handel Jones, chief executive at International Business Strategies, predicts that total sales for the chip industry will still grow 9.5 percent this year. But he expects revenue to decline 3.4 percent to $584.5 billion next year. Last year, he had predicted steady yearly growth for the chip industry from 2022 until 2030.
Warning signs included Intel’s second-quarter results, which it announced in July. The company posted a rare loss and a 22 percent drop in revenue, blaming its own missteps and customers who cut chip inventories.
“We were well into the quarter and we saw the market characteristics change quite suddenly,” Patrick Gelsinger, Intel’s chief executive, said in an earnings call.
At Micron, the mood also changed quickly. In May, the company gave bullish presentations at an investor event in San Francisco about long-term demand for its memory chips. By the next month, it was warning of slowing demand and falling chip prices.
In September, the company reported a 20 percent drop in fourth-quarter revenue. It also slashed planned spending on factories and equipment by nearly 50 percent in the current fiscal year.
The swing in demand might seem to undercut Micron’s widely publicized expansion plans, which include the Syracuse complex and a new $15 billion factory in Boise. But chip manufacturers often juggle different time schedules. Since new factories take roughly three years to complete, waiting too long to build can leave them short-handed when sales rebound.
“The long-term outlook for memory and storage is robust,” said Mark Murphy, Micron’s executive vice president and chief financial officer. The cuts in near-term capital spending, he added, are a needed response to “to bring our supply in line with demand.”
Intel’s situation is even more complex. The company has major factory expansions underway in Arizona, Oregon, New Mexico, Ireland and Israel, in addition to the new manufacturing campus in Ohio and one planned for Germany. Intel is also determined to start competing with T.S.M.C. in manufacturing for other companies, as well as making chips it designs.
Intel now plans to construct factory buildings while holding off on purchases of the costly machines inside them, which are a much bigger expense.
Those purchases can be tailored to emerging demand for particular kinds of chips, said Keyvan Esfarjani, Intel’s executive vice president who oversees construction and operation of its factories. He said the long-term need to reduce U.S. and European dependence on chips made in Asia was too important to be halted by short-term business cycles.
“This is beyond Intel,” Mr. Esfarjani said in an interview last month. “This is important for people, for communities, for the United States. It’s important for national security.”