Thursday, February 22, 2007

Taiwan v. the Koreans

The island's small firms are neck and neck with South Korea's in the hot flat panel sector. But can they keep up?
Jonathan Adams
Newsweek International, Oct. 31, 2005

The numbers look like a victory for Taiwan. In recent years, Taiwanese manufacturers watched and worried as Korean rivals rose to the top of the consumer-electronics world, with Samsung and LG Electronics becoming global household names in everything from washing machines to televisions. Now a group of five Taiwanese companies—none with recognizable brands—are on pace to outship the Koreans in a booming sector, liquid-crystal-display screens. These are the skinny screens that go into everything from iPods to new flat-panel TVs. They make up the lion's share of an overall display market expected to reach $100 billion in 2010, up from $62 billion last year. But while their prowess may provide a boost to national pride, the success of the Taiwanese companies may not be sustainable.

These are troubling times for Taiwan, which for decades has held the lead over South Korea as Asia's second richest nation after Japan. In international markets, the two nations were once commonly mentioned as a pair, but now South Korea occupies a spotlight of its own. The Seoul stock market is rising, lifted by foreign investors, as the Taipei market falls. Once the leading foreign investor in China, where it has obvious advantages of proximity and cultural affinity, Taiwan has been surpassed there, too, by South Korea, at least in the official numbers. (Much of the investment from Taiwan goes through back channels, to avoid Taipei's campaign to prevent overdependence on the mainland.) For the first time last year, South Korea's nominal per capita income ($14,150) passed Taiwan's ($13,450).

The Korean model has clear advantages in the LCD-screen industry, too. Production takes place in hulking factories that cost $2 billion or more, a steep price tag for smaller Taiwan firms that have trouble raising that kind of capital. Yet Taiwan has found ways to get in the game.

Taiwanese companies, which entered the business only in the late 1990s, have drawn on local expertise in the chip industry, which uses a process similar to etching features on a glass panel for an LCD screen. The Taiwanese economy is dominated by contract manufacturers, which make goods like flat-panel TVs for big brands, and are major customers for such screens. Budding manufacturers received an early boost from government tax breaks, research support and help in securing factory space. By last year, the five Taiwanese firms accounted for 40 percent of the industry's whopping $13 billion spending spree on new plants and equipment, compared with South Korea's 37 percent.

That set the stage for Taiwan's emergence as unit-sales leader this year. But despite the strong showing, the South Koreans are still making more money. Korea dominates the most profitable, large-size screens and can keep costs lower through economies of scale. Taiwanese company AUO earned a respectable $5 billion last year, but that lags far behind the $8.25 billion produced by Samsung's LCD business. The profit problem has the Taiwan government virtually tearing its hair out: earlier this year, Minister of Economic Affairs Ho Mei-yueh urged flat-panel makers to avoid "dominating the world market but making no money."

Ironically, this is exactly the criticism (booming market share, no profits) that used to be leveled at leading companies in South Korea, which now has a dozen Korean corporations in the "billion profit club." Its chaebol were once viewed as slow-moving behemoths next to Taiwan's smaller, more flexible firms. But now, as materials costs rise while product prices continue to go down, the crunch threatens the viability of Taiwan firms that have traditionally competed mainly on price, says Morgan Stanley economist Andy Xie. Reviewing recent earnings reports, Xie went so far as to ask: "Is the Korean model winning finally?"
AUO's strategy is to marry the agility and independence of Taiwanese firms with a size approaching that of a Korean chaebol. "Only the large companies can survive," says AUO chairman K. Y. Lee. "We've got to be a tiger to be sustainable. But that doesn't mean we'll be slow; we'll still be flexible, fast-moving and active." AUO, the biggest Taiwanese LCD maker by revenue, bulked up to its current size with the 2001 merger of two smaller firms that made different size screens, giving it the scale to ride out market downturns.

Lee thinks he's found a sweet spot—not too big and not too fast. "It's not necessary for us to become the first mover in the industry," says Lee. The cutting edge is sometimes known as the "bleeding edge," because of the cost and risk of developing new technology, and the need to burn through glass as new manufacturing techniques are perfected. "The Koreans are absorbing a lot of the technological uncertainty," says Tom Murtha, a professor of management at the University of Illinois at Chicago, and co-author of a book on the flat-panel industry. AUO was once about two years behind the Koreans in LCD technology and has closed that gap to about six months, which is right where it wants to be.

The Taiwan government has been urging the industry to consolidate for years, but so far the only major merger is the one that created AUO. Its global market share reached 14 percent in the second quarter, ahead of Taiwanese compatriot Chi Mei at 11 percent, but still well behind LG. Philips's 23.5 percent and Samsung's 20 percent, according to the U.S.-based market research firm DisplaySearch. How much longer the other Taiwan firms can stay competitive remains to be seen. Taiwan and South Korea are "neck and neck," says David Hsieh, an analyst with DisplaySearch in Taipei. "Taiwanese makers are more flexible in terms of getting orders, but the basic feature of the industry is still economic scale."

The implications of that contest go beyond the flat-panel sector. Analysts say some small Taiwanese firms can survive by specializing in niche markets, such as displays for portable DVD players. But Taiwan's flat-screen makers are learning the same painful lesson as its contract chip- and gadget makers: in the jungle of global competition, smaller animals end up as breakfast. Giant electronics manufacturers like Hon Hai and Inventec have bought up smaller component companies and now dominate the contract business. AUO's evolving model—moderate scale and near-cutting-edge technology—may provide a survival plan for Taiwan's flat-screen makers, whose demise analysts have been predicting for years. "But they're still there, and they're succeeding," says Murtha. Now, they just need to start turning a bigger profit.

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