Regional Spotlight: Taiwan

December 15, 2022

Liberty Square in Taipei, Taiwan.

In mid-October 2022, after more than 2.5 years of strict border control measures, Taiwan lifted all its COVID entry restrictions and allowed foreigners free access. As countries returned to their pre-pandemic routine, Taiwan was among the laggards (along with China and Hong Kong) in loosening requirements for visitors to complete a mandatory lengthy quarantine. That is why we welcomed (to say the least) the announcement of easing travel restrictions. And after two weeks of preparation, we landed in Taoyuan International Airport at the beginning of November.

Except for the requirement to wear a mask in all public places including outdoors, lifted only on December 1, life in Taipei looked normal. There was strong traffic in malls, convenience stores, hotels and restaurants. Over the span of a week, we met with 28 corporates engaged in the information technology, consumer, healthcare and industrial sectors.

Our general impression was mixed, with more optimism around healthcare and consumer-oriented companies balanced by a more cautious outlook provided by the technology operators. Overall, most corporates noted quite low visibility going into 2023, with only a handful of companies ready to provide guidance for the next year.

Key takeaways from our meetings:

  • Strong domestic consumption recovery after the reopening in Taiwan.
  • Most of the semiconductor companies are in the midst of weak momentum due to slow demand for consumer electronics and inventory corrections. PC and handset unit sales are expected to decline in 2023.
  • Data servers, automotive and industrial remain the only bright spots for now. The U.S. hyperscaler server market is expected to continue growing at a double-digit rate in 2023, although global enterprise and China server demand are expected to remain weak. Demand for ASIC (application-specific integrated circuit) design remains strong, as does demand for the ABF (Ajinomoto build-up film) substrate despite a correction in the PC market.
  • The impacts so far of U.S. sanctions on the Chinese semiconductor space are limited on Taiwan semiconductor companies because the new rules target only the most advanced technology, and most Chinese IC (integrated circuit) designers are making changes to fall within key thresholds of those sanctions. Moreover, some companies aim to reap benefits on lower competition with Chinese peers in the long term. However, there is a risk of further escalation in U.S.-China relationships, which could disrupt global technology supply chains and impact demand in 2023.
  • Many technology companies pointed out an increased need to de-risk their production facility locations following their customers’ requests for production capacities outside of both China and Taiwan.
  • General supply chain normalization, with remaining tightness in the supply of some key components.

Taiwan is the second largest market for our Emerging Markets strategy (behind India), with about 20% weight in the MSCI EM Small Cap index. It is the only country in the EM universe with a clear sector bias, as information technology accounts for more than half of the country weight in the benchmark. In the first 10 months of the year, Taiwan Small Cap underperformed the EM benchmark by more than 10%, a result mostly driven by derating of the technology sector. However, its performance in November looks like the beginning of a year-end rally on the expectations of semiconductor inventory correction bottoming. Likewise, moderating geopolitical risk may ease following the results of local mayoral elections on November 26, in which the Kuomintang, a party taking a more moderate stance on China, scored a big win over the incumbent Democratic Progressive Party.

Although we remain cautious on the technology inventory correction cycle, as there are multiple risks that might delay the sector recovery (e.g., deep recession in the U.S. and Europe, and broader geopolitical escalation), we acknowledge that some of the corporates in Taiwan are progressing well ahead of their peers. Most of market participants expect that a cyclical bottom in semiconductor demand might occur in the first half of 2023, with sequential improvement starting in the second half of 2023. This could drive a strong recovery in technology stocks. The importance of understanding inventory cycles was discussed in our note published on March 13, 2009. We see similar patterns here and remain alert to understanding where we are in the cycle.

Our EM portfolio is currently in a market-neutral position in Taiwan. We have a balanced roster of technology leaders, dominant operators catering to domestic markets, and exporters benefiting from secular tailwinds.

Here is a description of a sample of our holdings in Taiwan.

Chroma ATE Inc. (2360 TT) is a power and semiconductor testing equipment provider enjoying a leading position among the top-five global IC testers. For instance, NVIDIA uses Chroma testing equipment for all its products. Chroma also enjoys strong growth momentum in the electric vehicle (“EV”) industry. The company is one of the few operators in the technology sector that is less susceptible to industry cyclicality, and it has better visibility into the longer-term growth trajectory of the semiconductor industry.

Universal Vision Biotechnology Co., Ltd. (3218 TT) is the largest ophthalmology chain in Taiwan. The firm offers various eye treatments and related medical services such as laser vision correction and cataract surgeries. It is the leading brand in Taiwan, backed by a 30-year track record of high-quality services and innovation, with a dominant position in advanced eye surgeries such as SMILE (Small Incision Lenticule Extraction) and FLAC (Femtosecond Laser Assisted Cataract Surgery). The company also sells optometry products such as eyeglasses, contact lenses, and orthokeratology lenses at its self-operated eyewear stores. Benefiting from structural demographic tailwinds in Taiwan – due to high prevalence of myopia in the population – UVB is also a beneficiary of China’s COVID reopening, where it derives 25% of revenue. Following the recent easing of COVID restrictions, the company is looking to accelerate clinic openings in China.

Makalot Industrial Co., Ltd. (1477 TT) is one of the major global apparel manufacturing companies with industry- leading design flexibility, lead times, product offering and scale. We believe it is one of the main beneficiaries of the supply chain consolidation trend due to its diversified production sites, aggressive expansion in Indonesia and Bangladesh, and ability to deliver rush orders.

Global Alpha Capital Management Ltd.
December 15th, 2022