Chinese Suppliers May Grab Apple Biz From Bankrupt GT Advanced

BEIJING (TheStreet) -- Now that Apple's (AAPL) would-be sapphire glass supplier GT Advanced Technology (GTAT) has pretty much collapsed, are Chinese companies preparing to manufacture the hard-to-scratch glass for future Apple gizmos?

That may be a painful question for investors hammered by GT Advanced's sudden bankruptcy announcement Monday, which pushed the company's share price off a cliff.

Technology investors, including Apple shareholders, will probably want answers to this and related questions now that Chinese companies have unveiled plans to spend a combined $335 million on sapphire glass plants in northern China. The companies, including some that make other kinds of electronic parts, are betting on future Apple contracts.

In recent weeks, Chinese analysts have continued to recommend shares in domestic companies connected to what they expect to be a lucrative, Apple-related chain of sapphire glass screen suppliers. GF Securities, for example, has forecast "explosive growth" in demand for the glass tied to smartwatch screens.

GT Advanced is a Boston-area sapphire glass maker that built its business on the wrong assumption that Apple would use its products for screens installed in the new iPhone 6. The error became obvious when the smartphone hit the market in September with screens made of Gorilla Glass, a Corning (GLW) product found in other iPhones.

Apple typically says little about its suppliers, but stock analysts in China have been buzzing since early this year about supply-chain opportunities for Chinese sapphire glass makers that trade on the Shanghai and Shenzhen stock markets.

The analysts have often cited GT Advanced as the company to beat for iPhone 6 screen contracts, and they've argued that the new-technology glass would likely replace Corning's less expensive but easier-to-damage product in a variety of Apple products including smartwatches.

In April, analysts' predictions came true when a privately held Apple supplier called Biel Crystal and Shenzhen-listed Roshow Technologies formed a joint venture to make sapphire glass. They later unveiled plans to build an $81 million factory in the remote city of Tongliao, Inner Mongolia, about 400 miles north of Beijing.

Biel and Roshow closed their deal later than expected on September 10. The companies initially planned to break ground on their factory in August.

Among other things, Biel makes basic glass screens for Apple, Samsung (SSNLF) and Lenovo (LNVGY) devices. The company made headlines last year when a labor rights group linked worker suicides to conditions at its two plants in southern China.

Roshow manufactures coated copper and aluminum wire for electronic devices from a base in Zhuji, south of Shanghai. The company's stock price has more than tripled over the past year, although last month the China Securities and Exchange Commission suspended trading of its shares for one day before, saying it was investigating the company's 2012 financial report for possible fraud. The probe continues.

Other companies that have teamed up in recent weeks for sapphire glass production are Taiji Group, its subsidiary Southwest Pharmaceutical and Aurora Optoelectronics Technology.

Chongqing-based Taiji is a state-owned conglomerate that focuses on medical supplies. Southwest is one of its nearly 40 subsidiaries. In September, it announced that Southwest had bought a controlling stake in Aurora, a small-scale maker of sapphire glass for LED lighting based in the northeast city of Harbin.

Taiji said Southwest and Aurora would jointly invest $254 million in a sapphire glass factory in the Qitaihe, east of Harbin and about 100 miles from the Russian border. A construction timetable was not announced. Shares in Shanghai-listed Taiji have jumped about 80% since early August.

At the time of publication, the author held no positions in any of the stocks mentioned.

This article represents the opinion of a contributor and not necessarily that of TheStreet or its editorial staff.

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