Greetings from Hong Kong. Clay Chandler, filling in for Alan, with CEO Daily’s weekly Sino-Saturday edition.
When the Trump administration slapped punitive tariffs on Chinese imports last July, Apple was the only major American tech firm granted an exemption. Because US consumers are so addicted to their iPhones, and because so many Chinese workers are employed by Apple suppliers, investors mostly figured the trade war’s destroying angel would pass the US tech firm by.
Not even Tim Cook could deter the optimists. In January he slashed Apple’s revenue forecast and warned in a letter to shareholders that weakness in the Chinese economy, which Apple counts on for about a fifth of its revenue, could drag down the company’s financial results. Never mind. Apple’s share price sank 7% to $142—then, over the next four months, rallied to $211.
And yet this month’s sharp deterioration in US-China trade relations should give pause to even the most die-hard Apple bulls. Analysts are waking up to the fact that Apple can’t escape consequences of the next round of US tariffs. Morgan Stanley estimates those duties will increase the cost of an iPhone by $160.
The bigger worry is that Trump’s move this week to forbid US companies from selling technology to Chinese telecom gear giant Huawei Technology has painted cross-hairs on Apple’s back.
The Huawei ban takes trade hostilities to def-con 4; Fareed Zakaria calls it China’s Sputnik Moment. If fully implemented, the ban would cripple China’s leading tech manufacturer. Chinese officials have decried the measure as a “cynical” act of “bullyism,” and charged Trump with mobilizing the full force of the state to crush a Chinese firm. If Beijing sticks with its current policy of “tit-for-tat” retaliation, Apple would seem an obvious target for reprisal.
On Wednesday, analysts at Goldman Sachs, while stressing that “we are not assuming restrictions on iPhone production in mainland China at this point,” nevertheless estimated such a ban or “some other restriction on Apple products” could drag Apple’s earnings down 29%.
Even if Beijing doesn’t go after Apple directly, it can inflict pain in other ways. The Street.com suggests a Chinese ban on rare earths would be a huge headache for Apple. Beijing could also encourage a nationalist backlash against Apple products among Chinese consumers; there’s some evidence that’s already happening.
Yet even the most zealous Chinese nationalists find Apple’s charms hard to resist. The deputy chief of mission at the Chinese ministry in Islamabad gained momentary celebrity on social media this week with a photo showing how Huawei has “cut Apple to pieces.” He quickly became a figure of ridicule after it was revealed that he had taken the photo on an iPhone.
More China news below.
Economy and Trade
A new Long March. Beijing has taken its muzzle off of state-media. Rhetoric in domestic press has grown more nationalistic and confrontational since the trade war ceasefire ended two weeks ago. Xi Jinping announced in a speech Tuesday that China was embarking on a “new Long March” and should “make a new start,” preparing the nation for a protracted struggle. However, Xi’s march goes beyond the trade war. In his speech, Xi looked ahead to the next 70 years. New York Times
A new Cold War. The trade war is birthing a new conflict: the “tech Cold War.” Trump’s threats to prohibit U.S. companies from dealing with China’s leading tech players are deeply political and could fracture global supply lines. Global markets dipped on fears of drawn out hostilities. On Thursday, the Dow Jones was down 1.6%, the Nasdaq fell 1.9% and London’s FTSE 100 closed 1.4% lower (although Brexit woes could be to blame.) BBC
Innovation and Tech
Another tough week for Huawei. After the tech company was added to the Commerce Department’s prohibitive “entity list,” Google announced it was stripping Huawei’s access to Android. Various U.S. chipmaker’s followed suit, cutting ties with Huawei, denting their own share prices. ARM, a U.K. semiconductor maker, told employees it has to stop shipping to Huawei; Flex, a Singapore manufacturer, has stopped production on some Huawei lines; and Japan’s Panasonic sent conflicting messages about its Huawei relations. Huawei says it can survive on stockpiled components and, eventually, its in-house tech but analysts aren’t so sure. Bloomberg
Rolling bans. Reports claim Trump’s team is lining up more Chinese tech companies to embargo. Hikvision, the world’s largest surveillance company, is reportedly up next, allegedly due to its role in documenting Xinjiang’s oppressed Muslim minority. Fellow surveillance firm Dahua and speech-recognition leader iFlyTek could be targeted too. Fortune
Chips down. China’s largest chipmaker, Semiconductor Manufacturing International Corp (SMIC), is delisting from the NYSE in a move that the company says has nothing to do with the trade war. SMIC joined the exchange 14 years ago but says the cost of maintaining its listing coupled with low trade volumes has prompted it to privatize. SMIC is expected to delist after June 13. South China Morning Post
Watch out, WeChat. Bytedance released a messaging app called Feiliao, or Flipchat, which some see as a challenger to WeChat. A “WeChat challenger” emerges every once in a while, but it’s hard for any company to really compete against Tencent’s integrated ecosystem – combining messaging with payments, lifestyle services, games and everything else. Flipchat focuses on exchanging photos and video messages, making it more akin to Snapchat than WeChat. TechCrunch
Banking on fintech. HSBC is expanding its mainland China fintech research headcount by 14%. Currently the bank has 7,000 staff across China engaged in its technology centers across Shanghai, Guangzhou and Xi’an. “There is a lot more we can do with technology in mainland China. The level of technology adoption and innovation in China is way ahead of other markets,” HSBC Chief Information Officer Darryl West said. Reuters
In Case You Missed It
Politics and Policy
Fugitive refugees. In a landmark case, Germany granted asylum to two pro-independence activists from Hong Kong. The two skipped bail and fled Hong Kong in 2017 after being arrested for their role in the politically-charged “fishball revolution.” Germany granted the pair refugee status last year but one of the activists decided only now to make the ruling public in protest of a controversial extradition law Hong Kong is mulling. Financial Times
Critic questioned. This week Conchita Carpio Morales, a former official from the Philippines, was interrogated by Hong Kong’s immigration officers and temporarily denied entry when she arrived in the Semi-Autonomous Region on vacation with her family. Earlier this year, Morales sued China president Xi Jinping through the International Criminal Court for “crimes against humanity.” Bloomberg