Foxconn Whiplash

You are to be forgiven if you have whiplash from the multiple changes in direction of Foxconn last week. The world’s largest ODM and EMS company announced it was essentially pulling out of Wisconsin, scaling down its much publicized multi-million square foot campus in favor of a couple of small R&D centers. Then, after pressure from the US government, it quickly reversed course once again, saying the plans were still on.

Wisconsin taxpayers might feel a little like Charlie Brown getting the football yanked out from under him again. Not only does it look ever-less likely Foxconn will create anything close to the 13,000 local jobs it promised, but towns like Mt. Pleasant are already on the hook for hundreds of millions of dollars, the net effect of bonds it issued to pay for the initial construction. And if Foxconn doesn’t deliver, the state must pick up whatever the municipalities cannot pay back.

In any case, when it comes to Foxconn, actions speak way louder than words. Let’s wait to see whether anything actually gets built before commencing with the back-patting.

Steve Jobs’ Biggest Legacy?

The decision of Foxconn to enter the semiconductor manufacturing market gives additional heft to the premise that the US created a monster determined to swallow everything in its path.

As reported by Nikkei Asian Business today, Foxconn is working on a potential joint venture with its Sharp subsidiary to “invest” as much as $9 billion in the new plant, which would be the company’s first foray into IC development. (We put “invest” in quotes, because 1. the gulf between Foxconn’s reported investments and its actual investments tends to be oceanic in size and 2. in this case, the investment is reportedly coming from the Chinese government.)

Foxconn already is likely the world’s largest consumer of chips, so getting into the OEM business would cause reverberations among its major suppliers. Moreover, it returns us to the sad refrain: What is Foxconn’s end-game? The company dominates the electronics supply chain from boards to assemblies to box build, makes other components (connectors, displays, motherboards, etc.),
operates retail stores, invests in 5G … you name it.

Personally, I blame Steve Jobs. The iPhone was a revelation, for which Jobs deserves every ounce of credit he has received. But in looking for assemblers, he could and should have looked further than Foxconn. There simply is no major company in the electronics industry today that is more aggressive and yet has a worse record of worker treatment than Foxconn. I’ve worked in the industry since 1991. Foxconn remains the only company that I’ve ever received direct complaints from its employees about their treatment. (And that came from US workers. I can only imagine what their Chinese counterparts might say.)

And yes, I realize it was Michael Dell, not Jobs, who gave Foxconn and Terry Gou its entry into the US computer industry. But it was Apple that gave Foxconn its biggest stage, boosting the Taiwanese company from a third-party motherboard maker to a partner in the most revolutionary electronics device the world had seen to that point.

When criticized for his reliance on Foxconn, Jobs would fire back that the US didn’t have the engineers to build what Foxconn could build. But I don’t think it was an issue of talent, or availability. I think it was an issue of greed. Jobs couldn’t acquire the volume of talent needed at the price he wanted. Foxconn could.

And so that’s Steve Jobs legacy. Foxconn is a $150 billion company and growing. Its revenues are larger than any of its customers. And, being traded on the Taiwan Exchange, it has access to financial markets without the transparency of public companies in the US or Europe. A monster is present among us, and will eventually devour us all.

In Acquisition Mode, Foxconn is Turning Up the Heat

OEMs, beware: Foxconn is coming for you.

No, not just to buy your components, build your boards and run your logistics. Foxconn is coming for your data, your markets, and your customers.

We’ve been sounding the alarm about this for years. It’s not healthy for your primary supplier to be bigger than the nearly the entire rest of the market. Foxconn, pushing $150 billion in revenues, is as large as the next five EMS/ODMs combined, and more or less as large as numbers 7 through 500.

The 2016 buyout of Sharp could be chalked up to a desire by Foxconn to nab a key technology and supplier to Apple, it’s top customer. The just-announced deal for Belkin, however, coupled with its foray into developing 5G computing and cloud platforms,, suggest a drive to higher margin, branded products. Foxconn’s revenue is larger than almost everyone of its customers, and a new plan to issue $50 billion worth of stock could give it the capital it needs to go on a massive acquisition spree.

OEMs, beware.

The Bourse Identity

Foxconn’s prospectus to issue a public offering to raise money for its nascent foray in to cloud computing is less revealing for what it proposes than where the offering will take place.

Rather than leverage its newfound admiration in the US (or at least, in a couple pf offices in Washington) by accessing the Nasdaq or NYSE, instead Foxconn is opting for a far less prominent bourse: the Shanghai Exchange.

The reasons are obvious: The Shanghai bourse lacks the capital controls and oversight of the world’s dominant financial exchanges. A company, even one as large as Foxconn, can get away with a lot more, since reporting requirements and level of scrutiny are so less rigorous than in New York or Munich or London. Foxconn’s financial picture is opaque: even reporting on its revenues and profits remains an uncertain undertaking. Staying offshore makes that possible.

Finally, Shanghai is a Chinese exchange and Foxconn is a Chinese company. (Yes, I know it’s based in Taiwan. But look where the bulk of its facilities, workers, investment and attention is. And keep in mind that for many Taiwanese, China is still the motherland.) This latest move underscores that fact.

Trolling NY

Apparently someone has decided to toy with New York state by assuming the role of “Foxconn US” and trolling a poor soul named Chris Souzzi, who works for Genesee County Economic Development Center.

I’m no fan of Foxconn, and I don’t think there’s a snowball’s chance in hell they put a plant in the Empire State, but stunts like these aren’t funny (even if that’s what’s intended) and simply go too far.

 

 

Sorry Utica, Foxconn Isn’t Coming There

Or Broome County, NY. Or Harrisburg, PA.

Despite repeated media reports of an impending Foxconn migration, the company will remain what is has been since its founding in 1974: Chinese.

Sure, there will be satellites in key spots elsewhere: Juarez. San Jose. São Paulo. But not the American countryside, and not in big fashion, as is being widely reported by international media.

If Foxconn were to bring one of its Death Star-like campuses to the US, it would buck not just every single manufacturing trend, but outright common sense. Here’s three quick reasons why to expect that won’t happen.

  1. Incentives. Foxconn routinely holds out for hefty discounts on taxes, favorable access to land, and other concessions (See India, Malaysia, Indonesia, Vietnam, etc.). Given the higher cost of land acquisition, building codes and labor costs, and taxes, among other things, Foxconn would certainly insist on favorable treatment. Even if it were to get it – and unlikely proposition – how would that play with Americans if a Chinese company were to be given such breaks? Such a backlash has already begun in India, by the way.
  1. Access to capital. Founder and chairman Terry Gou is Foxconn’s single largest shareholder. He has been leveraging his own capital, including company stock, to fund recent acquisitions, including the mega-deal for Sharp. Despite (or perhaps because of) being publicly held in Taiwan, getting a clear picture on Foxconn’s assets and true financial worth is exceedingly difficult. Would the company be willing to trade its famously secretive culture in exchange for access to American bankers and financial markets? Or would that be the blow that levels a house of cards?
  1. Access to labor. Foxconn is prone to promoting – or at least failing to dismiss – wildly optimistic forecasts of capital investment in local projects. In the past few weeks alone it has been tied to a nearly $9 billion display manufacturing investment in China and another possible $7 billion version in the US. The latter, the reports say, citing Gou as the source, would create 30,000 to 50,000 jobs. Putting aside the fact that few of these massive new job figures ever are completely realized, even 1/10th of that amount would be three times the workforce of the 6 million sq. ft. battery factory Tesla built in 2014, for which Nevada ponied up nearly $1.3 billion in tax credits and rebates.

Simply put, there aren’t that many qualified engineers and technicians available in and around the American countryside to fill a campus that large. (Even China, which supposedly graduates two to three times the number of students in engineering and related fields each year doesn’t appear to have sufficient manpower to handle those employment estimates.)

The US Census Bureau, which tracks such things, notes there are nearly one million job openings at US manufacturers today. And a single company is going to add 5% more to that figure? Not likely.

There certainly aren’t that many available workers in Utica (population 61,000) or Harrisburg (population 50,000). The latter, famous as home to the Hershey chocolate company, should know to resist Foxconn’s temptations. On second thought, maybe it does:

“One location Foxconn already is familiar with in Pennsylvania is Harrisburg, where the company has a small operation and, in 2013, announced intentions to spend $30 million on a new plant that would employ up to 500. For that project, Havens said, DCED officials met with Foxconn representatives on various occasions and showed them potential locations for the planned site, but the project did not come to fruition.”

As part of the same announcement in 2013, Foxconn said it would invest $10 million for research and development at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh. When asked whether Foxconn ever delivered on its pledge, CMU spokesman Ken Walters said Wednesday the university had no comment.”

According to my sources, Foxconn is outsourcing, or seeking to outsource, work to other EMS companies in Southeast Asia. That doesn’t sound like a company that intends to take on manufacturing consumer products in North America. Pointedly, Gou himself told Reuters of news Foxconn would expand in the US: “There is such a plan, but it is not a promise. It is a wish.”

So with apologies to Utica, Harrisburg and other fine American cities, we say if you are waiting on Foxconn, don’t hold your breath.

P.S. For a great breakdown see this piece: http://www.livemint.com/Opinion/uzqTrvW0hMxgkSKCnh41dP/US-faces-risk-of-Foxconn-panel-plans-that-dont-add-up.html