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Global Chip Shortage Challenges Biden’s Hope for Manufacturing Revival

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WASHINGTON — President Biden came into office with plans to help the economy recover from the coronavirus pandemic and spur a domestic manufacturing revival for goods such as automobiles and semiconductors.

But one month into his presidency, a global chip shortage has shuttered auto factories in the United States, slowed shipments of consumer electronics and called into question the security of American supply chains.

The shortage of a vital component for automobiles, phones, refrigerators and other electronic devices is posing an early challenge to the administration’s promise to revive a manufacturing sector depressed by the pandemic. And it has spurred an effort by the administration to reach out to U.S. embassies and foreign governments to try to alleviate the shortage, even as the White House acknowledges that there are most likely few solutions to the supply crunch in the short term.

The White House plans to issue an executive order soon that will take steps to address these kinds of vulnerabilities in critical supply chains over the longer term, an administration spokesperson said on Thursday. The order will begin a review of domestic manufacturing and supply chains for critical materials — including rare earths, medical supplies and semiconductors — with a particular focus on reducing dependencies on unreliable or unfriendly foreign actors.

In the meantime, administration officials have begun looking for ways to ease the immediate shortage. Jake Sullivan, the national security adviser, and Brian Deese, the director of the National Economic Council, have been involved in efforts to increase chip availability; Sameera Fazili, the deputy director of the National Economic Council, and Peter Harrell, a senior director at the National Security Council, are leading the focus on supply chains, the White House spokesperson said.

The United States has also tried to leverage its ties with Taiwan, one of the world’s largest chip manufacturers, to make sure American customers are not disadvantaged. In a letter sent on Wednesday, Mr. Deese thanked Wang Mei-Hua, the Taiwanese minister of economic affairs, for her “personal attention and support in resolving the current shortages faced by American automobile manufacturers.”

Over the past year, the Trump administration tried to strengthen ties with the Taiwanese government and manufacturers like Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Company to counter China’s growing influence over the chip market.

The Biden administration is also meeting with auto companies and suppliers to identify bottlenecks and to urge them to work together to address the shortage. But the White House has acknowledged that its options to alleviate any shortfall are likely to be limited, given the fierce global competition for semiconductors. Many chip makers are already running near maximum capacity, and it will take at least several months to further ramp up production, analysts say.

The shortage has been particularly disruptive for auto manufacturers because the production of vehicles relies on dozens of computer chips for electronic components that control engines, transmissions, entertainment systems, brakes and other systems. Both General Motors and Ford have estimated that the shortage will lower their operating profit by at least $1 billion this year.

G.M. has halted production at one plant in the United States, one in Canada and another in Mexico until at least mid-March. At a fourth plant, the company has decided to produce vehicles without the electronics that are in short supply. When components become available, G.M. will install them and then ship the vehicles to dealers.

Ford canceled shifts last week at two important pickup truck plants. One of them, near Kansas City, Mo., is closed this week because of inclement weather and a shortage of natural gas in the Midwest.

Economists say the effect is likely to be small but noticeable. Mark Zandi, the chief economist at Moody’s Analytics, said he expected the chip shortage to reduce new vehicle sales by 450,000 units in 2021. That would lower overall economic output in the United States by approximately $15 billion, or not quite 0.1 percent of gross domestic product, which is expected to increase by 5.6 percent this year, he said.

Industry analysts say the shortages are partly because of a pre-pandemic trend toward consolidation and inventory depletion in the chip sector, which was exacerbated by the kind of coronavirus-related disruptions that have led to shortages of other products, such as exercise bikes, tablets and toys.

Factory shutdowns, first in China and then elsewhere around the world, disrupted production of the chips and the cars and electronics that require them. Automakers and consumer electronics companies then underestimated the surge in demand from at-home buyers, leaving companies scrambling with chip makers to secure their supply, according to analysts.

President Donald J. Trump’s trade policy might have also played a role, as chip makers anticipated that new U.S. restrictions on the type of technology that Chinese companies such as Huawei could buy would lower demand. Chip makers responded by trimming output.

Winter storms this week have also shut down or slowed production at chip factories owned by Samsung and NXP Semiconductors near Austin, Texas, potentially exacerbating the shortages.

John Neuffer, the president of the Semiconductor Industry Association, said that the pandemic had thrown off the short-term balance between supply and demand.

“Chip companies are working hard to meet demand from the auto and other sectors,” he said, “but these are highly complex products that can take months to produce, so it’s unfortunately not like flipping a switch.”

Mr. Neuffer said the shortages highlighted the need for the U.S. government to “invest now in domestic semiconductor manufacturing and research so the new chips we need are produced right here on U.S. shores.”

The United States is home to companies like Intel, Nvidia, AMD, Micron and Qualcomm, and still responsible for designing many of the world’s most advanced chips. But the American share of global chip manufacturing capacity has fallen to 12 percent from 37 percent in 1990, according to data from the Semiconductor Industry Association. The shift occurred as American companies outsourced manufacturing and governments in South Korea, Singapore, China and elsewhere have aggressively subsidized production.

The Semiconductor Industry Association, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and other business groups sent a letter on Thursday to the Biden administration urging it to work with Congress to provide funding for semiconductor manufacturing and research and to establish an investment tax credit for new manufacturing facilities.

Congress recently passed new legislation to set up manufacturing incentives and research initiatives in the chip industry as part of a defense authorization bill, but the provisions have yet to be fully funded.

Jim Tankersley contributed reporting from Washington, and Neal E. Boudette from Ann Arbor, Mich.

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