By Heekyong Yang and Ju-min Park
SEOUL (Reuters) â€“ Memory chip spot prices have risen for the first time this year, indicating grim warnings of â€œnever seen beforeâ€ spikes and a supply disruption could come to pass as a dispute between South Korea and Japan drags on.
The 15% spike in DRAM chip prices over a week â€“ in a sector dogged by oversupply and weak demand for more than a year â€“ comes after Japan tightened curbs on exports of some chipmaking materials to South Korea â€“ home to the worldâ€™s top two memory chipmakers, Samsung and SK Hynix Inc.
To be fair, the price surge indicated by industry tracker DRAMeXchange refers to the spot market that accounts for less than a tenth of the memory chip landscape as most major tech firms source through mid- and long-term contracts.
Given this background, major customers such as iPhone maker Apple are yet to start stockpiling, but the price spike has started fuelling fears that Japanâ€™s curbs will soon impact supply, several industry sources said.
â€œIf the ban continues, memory prices will skyrocket like never seen before as 75% of DRAM and 45% of NAND global output is at risk,â€ Mark Newman from Bernstein said, referring to South Koreaâ€™s dominance in the supply of those memory chips.
A person at a South Korean chipmaker said customers were â€œfollowing the situations closelyâ€ but â€œtaking a wait-and-see approach as demand still remains weakâ€.
Samsung and SK Hynix declined to comment.
â€œWe will need contingency plans if the impact materialises,â€ said a spokeswoman at Vaio, a Sony Corp spinoff.
â€œOptions include seeking alternative chip suppliers outside South Korea,â€ she said, adding business at the Japanese computer maker had, however, not yet been hit.
Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Co Ltd, the worldâ€™s top contract chipmaker, warned that Japanâ€™s export curb is the â€œbiggest uncertaintyâ€ for the fourth quarter.
Japan has tightened curbs on exports of three chipmaking materials â€“ fluorinated polyimides, used in smartphone displays; photoresists, used to transfer circuit patterns on to semiconductor wafers; and hydrogen fluoride, used as an etching gas when making chips.
South Korea sourced 94% of fluorinated polyimides, 92% of photoresists and about 44% of hydrogen fluoride from Japan in the first five months of this year, Korean industry data showed.
Seoul has said it is seeking to make its supply chain more independent and has been getting fresh offers from Russia and China to provide hydrogen fluoride.
A local media reported that South Korea was considering lowering import tariffs on these products from other countries to fill in any potential supply gaps.
â€œWe â€¦ do see some (chip) module manufacturers raising their quotes or announcing halts to production in light of the material restrictions â€¦,â€ research firm TrendForce said.
In NAND flash market, supply has also been hurt by an output halt at Japanâ€™s Toshiba Memory last month due to a power outage.
A person at Toshiba Memory said the plant resumed operations in mid-July but it will take time for shipments to recover fully and that the company still has to catch up with existing orders.
Brokerage UBS said this week it expects NAND contract chip prices to fall 5% in the third quarter, less than a previous forecast for a 10% quarter-on-quarter drop, citing Toshibaâ€™s output cut and Japanâ€™s export curbs. But it kept its projection for a 17% drop in DRAM contract prices unchanged.
NAND chips are found in mobile devices as well as memory cards, USB flash drives and solid-state drives, while DRAM is used to support electronic devices performing multi-tasks.
Clear winners from better chip prices would be Micron, Toshiba, Nanya and Western Digital, Bernsteinâ€™s Newman said.
â€œSamsung and SK Hynix, although potentially hurt from production issues, would also benefit from significantly higher prices and ironically likely still be net winners,â€ he added.
Shares of Micron have risen 12% since Japan announced the export curbs on July 1, while Western Digital Corp and SK Hynix have gained 8% and 7% respectively. Taiwanâ€™s Nanya Technologies has increased 5%.
Samsung shares, however, have dipped 2% over the period, hurt by its forecast for a 56% plunge in second-quarter profit due to tumbling memory chip prices.
(Reporting by Heekyong Yang, Ju-min Park in SEOUL, Makiko Yamazaki in TOKYO, Sijia Jiang in HONGKONG, Yimou Lee in TAIPEI; Writing by Miyoung Kim; Editing by Himani Sarkar)