After the March 11 monster earthquake and tsunami wiped out large parts of Japan, headlines focused on the near-meltdown of Fukushima. Recently, I learned that there was a strong likelihood of a worldwide economic meltdown, caused by a microchip factory 80 miles south of Fukushima. Here is the story of how the crisis was contained.
A consortium of major Japanese companies, along with a government-backed turnaround fund snapped chipmaker Renesas away from what they deemed as certain doom on the hands of the American private equity fund Kohlberg Kravis Roberts (KKR). The Nikkei [sub] reports in a flash message that the consortium that includes all three major Japanese automakers has put together a $13 billion package to block a purchase by KKR.
Why was Honda as much hit as Toyota by the March11 earthquake and tsunami? Doesn’t Honda have the bulk of its production outside of Japan? How could Nissan avoid most of the damage, even with an engine factory close to Fukushima?
It was a bit like a roulette game, and it involved a lot of chips. According to industry talk in Japan, Nissan had taken a large supply of ECU chips before the quake. Honda and Toyota were waiting for their just-in-time delivery. Honda and Toyota received most of their engine controller chips from one chipmaker, Renesas. Two weeks after the catastrophe, we had pointed out that Renesas and its damaged fab near the epicenter would turn into a major bottleneck. What’s more, Honda had no idea.
Automakers in Japan are slowly crawling back to normal. However, they are in for another after shock, and this one could be quite serious: Yasushi Akao, President of chipmaker Renesas said today that supplies of microcontrollers from his company will be in serious trouble come June. According to The Nikkei [sub], “stocks are expected to run out next month as operations at the firm’s Naka plant in Ibaraki Prefecture have been suspended since the Great East Japan Earthquake on March 11.” Renesas microcontrollers are the chips of choice of many car companies who use them in their on-board electronics. Toyota is known to be a large customer of Renesas.
Yesterday’s good news from strategically important Japanese automotive chip maker Renesas did not last long. Now for the bad news: Their automotive microcontroller chips will be strictly rationed when they eventually ship. This being Japan, it is said more politely: Renesas is “thinking about the development of voluntary rules for major automakers,” as Japan’s Yomiuri Shimbun puts it.
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