As Chinese trade tensions and national security fears continue flaring, there could be consequences for U.S. tech companies even if -- as might very well be the case -- some kind of compromise is ultimately reached on tariffs.
We got a taste of such fallout on Monday, when several chipmakers and optical component firms were hammered on news that the Department of Commerce (DOC) is banning U.S. companies from acting as suppliers to Chinese phone and telecom equipment giant ZTE for seven years. The DOC says the ban is in response to ZTE's failure to make good on a 2017 plea agreement related to its violation of sanctions prohibiting the shipment of U.S. products to Iran and North Korea.
Until it's lifted, the ban stands to impact everyone from optical component/module suppliers such as Acacia Communications (ACIA) and Oclaro to telecom/networking chip suppliers such as Cavium (CAVM) and Xilinx (XLNX) to mobile chip suppliers such as Qualcomm (QCOM) and Skyworks (SWKS) . Some of the damage will, of course, be offset by share losses ZTE is likely to see on account of the ban. This could particularly hold for mobile suppliers, given that the ban could prevent ZTE from shipping phones running Alphabet/Google's (GOOGL) version of Android.
Separately, the FCC is pushing ahead with a plan that would prevent U.S. telecom carriers receiving government subsidies (that's most of them) from using suppliers viewed as national security risks. The move is widely seen as targeting ZTE and Chinese peer Huawei. However, both firms have largely been frozen out of U.S. telecom equipment contracts in recent years, and have also struggled to land major phone deals with U.S. carriers.
Here are a few other areas where heightened trade and security tensions with China could affect U.S. tech firms:
1. M&A Reviews
Last week, The Wall Street Journal reported that Chinese regulators are slowing their review of Qualcomm's pending $44 billion acquisition of NXP Semiconductors (NXPI) , as well as the pending $19 billion sale of Toshiba's flash memory unit to a group led by Bain Capital, amid ongoing trade tensions. The Qualcomm/NXP deal has already received all other needed regulatory approvals, and there hasn't been any indication that the Toshiba will see strong regulatory opposition elsewhere.
It's possible that these deals will get cleared following a tariff compromise. But for now, stalled Chinese reviews create an element of M&A uncertainty for a chip industry that has seen plenty of consolidation since 2013. And it may also more broadly impact large tech acquisitions involving companies with meaningful Chinese exposure.
2. 5G and Telecom Deals
In blocking Broadcom's (AVGO) hostile bid for Qualcomm, the Trump Administration cited (somewhat questionably) the deal's potential to erode the U.S.'s 5G technology lead. As Mizuho's Vijay Rakesh argued in a Wednesday note, there could be closer scrutiny going forward of 5G technology transfers (outside of licensing standards-essential patents) to China. That could affect the ability of Qualcomm and others to form close 5G partnerships with Chinese firms.
Meanwhile, China could retaliate against U.S. restrictions on ZTE and Huawei by curbing its purchases of U.S. telecom equipment. That would impact the likes of Cisco Systems (CSCO) and Juniper Networks (JNPR) .
3. Chip Equipment Sales
There have long been restrictions on the ability of cutting-edge U.S. chip manufacturing equipment to be sold or shipped into China -- the restrictions have been justified via the Wassenaar Arrangement, which covers the export of technologies that could have military uses.
Companies can obtain exemptions to such restrictions -- Intel (INTC) , for example, might be relying on them to make large investments in an advanced Chinese flash memory fab. Greater scrutiny of Chinese technology transfers could make such exemptions harder to come by, however.
4. Boycotts and Government Pressure
As Japanese and Korean multinationals can attest, Chinese boycotts stemming from geopolitical tensions can take a heavy toll on the local sales of targeted companies. Though it's too soon to expect that U.S. multinationals such as Apple (AAPL) and Starbucks (SBUX) will be hit by such boycotts, it's not hard to imagine them having an impact if major tariffs go into effect.
Likewise, the steep drop seen in U.S. enterprise and telecom hardware sales to China following the NSA spying uproar that began in 2013 serves as a reminder of how -- even in the absence of formal import bans or restrictions -- Beijing can hurt the sales of U.S. tech giants by pressuring government agencies, state-owned enterprises and other corporate/institutional buyers not to buy from American firms.
Jim Cramer and the AAP team hold positions in Apple, Broadcom and Alphabet for their Action Alerts PLUS Charitable Trust Portfolio. Want to be alerted before Cramer buys or sells AAPL, AVGO or GOOGL? Learn more now.