CHIPMAKERS’CRAFT can seem magical. They use light to stamp complex patterns on a dinner-plate-sized disc of crystal silicon, forming arrays of electric circuits. Once cut out of the disc, each array is called a chip. The chip’s job is to shuttle electrons in a mathematical shimmer prescribed by computer code. They do the maths which runs the digital world, from Twitter and TikTok to electronics in tanks. Without them, whole industries cannot function properly, as carmakers forced to pause production because of microprocessor shortages are discovering.
The most important firm in this critical business is Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Company (TSMC). It controls 84% of the market for chips with the smallest, most efficient circuits on which the products and services of the world’s biggest technology brands, from Apple in America to Alibaba in China, rely. As demand for the most sophisticated chips surges thanks to the expansion of fast communication networks and cloud computing, TSMC is pouring vast additional sums of money into expanding its dominance of the cutting edge.
This has proved to be a successful business model. Last year TSMC made an operating profit of $20 bn on revenues of $48 bn. It is, in the words of Dan Hutcheson of VLSIresearch, a firm of analysts,“the Hope Diamond of the semiconductor industry”—and, with a resplendent market capitalisation of $560 bn, the world’s 11 th-most-valuable company. It is also an astute geopolitical actor, navigating the rising Sino-American tensions, including over the fate of its home country, which China claims as part of its territory and to which America offers military support. In 2020, 62% of TSMC’s revenue came from customers with headquarters in North America and 17% from those domiciled in China. It has managed the geopolitical divide by making itself indispensable to the technological ambitions of both superpowers.
事实证明，这样的商业模式是成功的。去年，台积电取得了 480 亿美元的收入，营业利润达 200 亿美元。按分析公司 VLSIresearch 的丹・哈奇森（Dan Hutcheson）的说法，台积电是「半导体行业的希望之钻」。它拥有 5600 亿美元的辉煌市值，排名全球第 11 位。同时，它也是个精明的地缘政治玩家，在中美不断升级的摩擦中游刃有余，包括在台湾问题上的摩擦（中国对台宣誓主权，美国对台提供军事支持）。2020 年，台积电 62% 的收入来自总部在北美的客户，17% 来自注册地在中国大陆的客户。通过让自己在两个超级大国的技术雄心中占据不可或缺的地位，台积电成功跨越了地缘政治的鸿沟。
TSMC was founded in 1987, and for the first quarter-century it made mostly unremarkable microprocessors. That began to change in 2012, with its first contract to make powerful chips for the iPhone. Apple wanted TSMC to push its manufacturing technology as far and as fast as it could, to gain an edge over rival gadget-makers. The notoriously secretive American firm liked the way Morris Chang, TSMC’s founder, made trade-secret protection one of his priorities; guests to TSMC premises would have their laptops’USB ports sealed even if they only visited a conference room.
台积电创立于 1987 年，在头 25 年主要生产普通的微处理器。这在 2012 年开始改变，当年台积电与苹果公司签下第一份合同，为 iPhone 制造功能强大的芯片。苹果希望台积电能尽快且大幅提升其制造技术，让它可以获得相比其他设备制造商对手的优势。这家以重视保密著称的美国公司看中了台积电创始人张忠谋把保护商业机密作为头等大事的作风——进入台积电工厂的访客携带的笔记本电脑的 USB 端口都会被密封起来，即便他们只是去一间会议室。
Two years later the Taiwanese firm’s chips were powering the iPhone 6, the best-selling smartphone of all time. Revenue from the 220 m units sold kick-started TSMC’s ascent. Some of Apple’s competitors also used TSMC as a supplier, and wanted the same thing. All paid handsomely for the chipmaker’s efforts.
两年后，史上最畅销的智能手机 iPhone 6 搭载了台积电代工的芯片，它 2.2 亿台的销量带来的收入开启了这家台湾公司的腾飞之路。苹果公司的一些竞争对手也找台积电供货，对它的期望也和苹果一样。这些公司全都为它的水准支付高价。
This windfall set TSMC steaming ahead. It overtook Intel, the American giant which once enjoyed a monopoly on the leading edge, then left it in the dust (see chart 1). Its remaining rival in top-flight chips, Samsung of South Korea, is barely able to keep up. Such is TSMC’s manufacturing prowess that Peter Hanbury of Bain, a consultancy, reckons it has given Moore’s Law, the industry’s prediction-cum-benchmark of doubling processing power every two years or so, at least another 8-10 years of life.
这笔意外之财令台积电从此高歌猛进。它赶超了曾经垄断前沿阵地的美国巨头英特尔，后来更是把对方远远抛在后头（见图表 1）。它在顶级芯片领域剩余的对手韩国三星也只是在勉强追赶。咨询公司贝恩的彼得・汉伯瑞（Peter Hanbury）认为，台积电的制造实力之强，让摩尔定律这一半导体行业的预测基准（认为芯片性能每两年左右提升一倍）的效力至少又延长了八至十年。
Its lead over rivals is growing. It is pouring cash into cutting-edge chip factories (known as fabs) at an unprecedented rate. In January it said it would raise its capital expenditure to $25 bn-28 bn in 2021, up from $17 bn in 2020. In April TSMC raised the figure again, to $30 bn; 80% will go on advanced technologies. It plans to spend $100 bn over the next three years.
台积电的领先优势正在扩大。它正以前所未有的速度向尖端芯片工厂（通常叫 fab，即晶圆厂）投入资金。今年 1 月，台积电表示 2021 年的资本支出将从 2020 年的 170 亿美元提高到 250 亿至 280 亿美元。4 月，它又把数字调高至 300 亿美元，其中 80% 将用于投资先进技术。它计划未来三年总共投资 1000 亿美元。
It has also stopped cutting prices—which in chipmaking, where processing power has only got cheaper, is tantamount to raising them. Its chief executive, C.C. Wei, has said it will skip a planned price cut in December 2021 and keep things that way for a year. IC Insights, a research firm, calculates that TSMC can charge between twice and three times as much per silicon wafer made using its most advanced processes, compared with what the next-most-advanced technology will fetch.
它还停止了降价，在处理能力越来越便宜的芯片制造领域，这相当于提价。其首席执行官魏哲家已经表示，原计划 2021 年 12 月的降价行动取消，在一年内维持原价。据研究公司 IC Insights 计算，台积电使用其最先进工艺制造的硅片的售价可能是上一代工艺的二到三倍。
This creates a positive feedback loop. Developing the latest technology before anyone else allows TSMC to charge higher prices and earn more profit, which is ploughed back into the next generation of technology—and so on. The cycle is spinning ever faster. Four technological generations ago it took TSMC two years for those cutting-edge chips to make up 20% of revenues; the latest generation needed just six months to reach the same level (see chart 2). Operating income, which grew at an average rate of 8% year in the decade to 2012, has since risen by 15% on average. Combined with revenues that chip-designers make from semiconductors ultimately forged by TSMC, the company and its customers account for 39% of the global market for microprocessors, according to VLSIresearch, up from 9% in 2000 and a third more than once-dominant Intel.
这就形成了一个良性循环。先于他人开发出最新技术让台积电能叫价更高，利润更丰，而这些利润又可以投入开发下一代技术，如此往复。这一循环的速度也在不断加快。往前回溯四个技术世代，台积电那会儿要花两年时间让尖端芯片的收入占比提升至 20%；最新一代技术只用了六个月就达到了这一水平（见图表 2）。在截至 2012 年的十年里营业收入平均每年增长 8%，此后平均增速达到 15%。据 VLSIresearch 的数据，加上芯片设计公司从最终由台积电制造的半导体所获的收入，台积电及其客户占全球微处理器市场的份额已从 2000 年的 9% 升至 39%，比一度称霸该市场的英特尔高三分之一。
This is an enviable position to be in. But it is not an unassailable one. The experience of Intel, which has fallen behind in the last two generations of chips because of technological missteps, shows that even the most masterful manufacturers can trip up. Chipmaking is also notoriously cyclical. Booms lead to overcapacity, and to busts. Demand may slacken as the rich world emerges from the pandemic, when purchases of gadgets that made it possible to work and relax at home were brought forward. That would hit TSMC’s bottom line and strain its balance-sheet. The company has $13 bn of net cash, a modest rainy-day fund for a big tech firm. To help finance its most advanced fabs, it has issued $6.5 bn-worth of bonds in the past six months.
这样的领先地位令人羡慕，但也并非不可动摇。由于技术决策上的失误，英特尔在过去两代芯片竞赛中落后，这说明即使是最优秀的制造商也会栽跟头。芯片制造也是出了名的周期性行业。市场繁荣导致产能过剩，进而转入萧条。疫情期间，人们纷纷提前购买用于居家工作和休闲娱乐的电子设备，待富裕世界走出疫情后，需求可能放缓。这将有损台积电的盈利，对其资产负债表造成压力。该公司拥有 130 亿美元的净现金，对于一家大型科技公司来说这笔应急资金不算多。为融资建设最尖端的晶圆厂，它在过去六个月发行了 65 亿美元的债券。
The most serious danger to TSMC comes from the Sino-American ructions. The company’s position at the cutting edge offers a buffer against geopolitical turmoil. Chip-industry insiders say that the Taiwanese government encourages all its chipmakers, including TSMC, to keep their cutting-edge production on the island as a form of protection against foreign meddling. Taiwanese contract manufacturers account for two-thirds of global chip sales.
Reflecting this, 97% of TSMC’s $57 bn-worth of long-term assets reside in Taiwan (see chart 3). That includes every one of its most advanced fabs. Some 90% of its 56,800 staff, of whom half have doctorates or masters degrees, are based in Taiwan.
结果就是，台积电价值 570 亿美元的长期资产有 97% 在台湾（见图表 3）。其中包括它所有最先进的晶圆厂。56,800 名员工（一半拥有博士或硕士学位）约有 90% 常驻台湾。
The firm has made soothing noises to America and China, offering to invest more in production lines based in both countries. But it is hard not to see this as diplomatic theatre. Its Chinese factory in Nanjing, opened in 2018, produces chips that are two or three generations behind the cutting edge. By the time its first American fab, designed to be more advanced than the one in Nanjing, is up and running in 2024, TSMC will be churning out even fancier circuits at home. By our estimates, based on disclosed investment plans, the net value of TSMC’s fabs and associated equipment will roughly double by 2025, but 86% will still be in Taiwan.
台积电已向中美政府发出安抚信号，表示计划在两国的生产线上都加大投资。但很难不把这视作一种两头周旋的表演。台积电位于南京的工厂于 2018 年投产，生产的芯片比最先进的落后两三代。而到 2024 年它的第一家美国晶圆厂（比南京的工厂更先进）投产时，它将在台湾本土制造更先进的芯片。本刊根据已披露的投资计划估计，到 2025 年，台积电的晶圆厂和相关设备的净值大概会翻一番，但 86% 仍将留在台湾岛上。
In the past three years the American government has begun to disrupt the delicate balance. It has tightened export controls that prohibit any foreign company from using American tools to make chips for Huawei, a Chinese technology giant. That applies to TSMC, which in 2019 sold more chips to Huawei than to any other customer bar Apple. Most of these were destined for smartphones, and other Chinese handset-makers such as Oppo happily snapped up what Huawei (which on April 28 th reported its second year-on-year decline in quarterly revenues in a row) could not.
过去三年，美国政府开始打破这一微妙的平衡。它加强了出口管制，禁止任何外国公司使用美国设备为中国科技巨头华为制造芯片。该禁令适用于台积电，在 2019 年，华为是台积电的仅次于苹果的第二大客户。台积电给华为制造的大多是智能手机芯片，在华为（4 月 28 日公布其季度收入连续第二次同比下降）被列为禁售对象后，Oppo 等其他中国手机制造商欣然抢过华为空出的产能。
Further American attempts to prevent TSMC from doing business with China could invite meddling by the regime in Beijing, which refuses to rule out taking back Taiwan by force. President Joe Biden’s administration has also announced a $50 bn government plan to revive chipmaking at home: it is doubtful whether subsidies will restore Intel’s supremacy, but the initiative could involve putting more pressure on TSMC to put cutting-edge production in America, a strategic trap the firm has been keen to resist.
美国若试图进一步阻挠台积电与中国大陆的业务往来，可能会招致北京干预，中国政府一向不排除武力收复台湾的可能性。拜登政府还宣布了一项 500 亿美元的政府计划，以期重振美国本土的芯片制造业。政府补贴能否让英特尔重拾霸主地位尚有疑问，但此举可能包括对台积电进一步施压，让它把尖端生产放在美国，这一战略陷阱正是台积电一直强烈抵抗的。
The rival powers have so far refrained from interfering with TSMC directly, perhaps concluding that this is the most reliable way of achieving their technological objectives. If the chipmaker’s importance keeps growing, one of them may decide that it is too valuable to be left alone.