MarketWatch First Take: Huawei arrest creates concerns in Silicon Valley as well as abroad

The arrest of Huawei Technologies Co.’s chief financial officer is sure to put a crimp in the Trump administration’s trade truce with China, as that highly sensitive issue gets more so, but investors are nervous about the impact the whole saga will have on Silicon Valley and abroad.

On Thursday, shares of many chip and fiber-optic companies fell, helping fuel a market downdraft that reversed at the end of the session. Investors fear — with good reason — that the arrest in Canada of Meng Wanzhou, the CFO and the daughter of the founder of one of China’s largest tech giants, on a request for extradition from the United States, will derail the trade truce that presidents Donald Trump and Xi Jingping had agreed to in Buenos Aires. On Wednesday, a former Commerce Department official told Axios that China could retaliate and hold U.S tech executives hostage. He advised U.S. tech executives not to travel to China this week.

“My biggest worry is escalation,” said Stacy Rasgon, a Bernstein Reseach analyst. “We just arrested the daughter of the founder of the most important tech company in China.”

Another cause for jitters is the possibility of a ban on Huawei products, and its impact not just on the global supply chain, but also on the many semiconductor firms that supply chips to Huawei for its smartphones and networking equipment. Stocks of chip makers such as Intel Corp. INTC, +1.30%  , AMD Inc. AMD, +0.85% , Nvidia Corp. NVDA, +0.75% NXP Semiconductors N.V. NXPI, +0.28%  and Xilinx Inc. XLNX, -2.50%  fell in morning trading, but mostly recovered by the end of the day.

In addition, stocks of optical component vendors, such as Finisar Corp. FNSR, +0.66% Oclaro Inc. OCLR, +1.81% and Lumentum Holdings Inc. LITE, -0.86% , were also initially hit but later recovered. Their components are found in Huawei networking equipment, which had 28% of the world’s telecom-equipment market in the third quarter, according to the Dell’Oro Group.   

“Naturally, this has sparked a wave of questions as to Huawei exposure amongst our companies, especially given what happened with the ZTE ban earlier in the year,” Rasgon said.

He noted that Huawei is “a sizeable buyer” of semiconductors, buying about $15 billion in 2017, according to Gartner Inc., and it is the fifth-largest buyer globally, accounting for about 3.5% of the market.

“If there were to be a ban on sales to Huawei, eventually business that Huawei could not supply would presumably go elsewhere, and our companies tend to have wider exposure. Hence ‘lost’ business would likely not be permanent,” Rasgon said.

He added, though, that in the near term there could be some disruptions as supply chains are forced to evolve, which is what happened during the ban on buying products made by China’s ZTE Corp. 000063, +1.61%  , which like Huawei was accused by the U.S. of violating sanctions against Iran.

But as investors worry about the latest Huawei news and its potential impact on individual companies, the bigger fear is its impact on the ongoing trade war. If anything, the latest news shows that Chinese companies will probably continue to operate by their own rules to increase their global power. This latest incident of another company selling products to Iran, against U.S. sanctions, is another blatant example.

Trump may think he alone can fight China’s quest for world domination, but it might be time to work with some other countries whose businesses face the same risks.

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