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China relentlessly poaching Taiwan chip talent: Nanya Tech

Memory chipmaker sees robust demand from data centers, DRAM prices high until Q3

Nanya Technology is the world's No. 4 DRAM chipmaker after Samsung, SK Hynix and Micron.

New Taipei City, TAIWAN -- President Lee Pei-Ing of memory chipmaker Nanya Technology said on Tuesday Chinese rivals were still luring engineers from Taiwan with salaries as much as five times higher than what they were earning on the island.     

"As far as we know, they could offer a salary package that is three to five times higher than the original package," Lee said in a press conference.

"[The Chinese competitors] often target key regional managers and then ask them to bring a team with them. That's a very common and efficient practice that they employ," said Lee.

China is sponsoring several mega memory chip projects, aiming to cut reliance on foreign chip suppliers. Two most notable Chinese emerging players are Yangtze Memory Technologies, an affiliate of Tsinghua Unigroup, and Innotron Memory. Both are building their first memory chip factories, at a cost of $24 billion and $8 billion respectively, and eager to bring in as many engineers as possible to help develop technologies.

Nanya Tech, an affiliate of Taiwan's Industrial Conglomerate Formosa Plastics Group, is the world's fourth-largest dynamic random access memory provider, trailing Samsung ElectronicsSK Hynix and Micron. Nanya Tech has already lost some 50 staff members to these rising Chinese competitors, according to Lee. Nanya Tech's former President Charles Kau joined Yangtze Memory Technologies in 2015.

Innotron specializes in developing DRAM while Yangtze Memory Technologies works on NAND Flash memory. They have yet to produce anything. Nanya Tech only makes DRAM. DRAMs and NAND flash are both crucial memory chips used in a wide range of electronics, including PCs, smartphones, connected cars and in data centers.

Despite the threats posed by Chinese rivals, Nanya Tech's business has been boosted by tight market supply and surging DRAM prices since the second half of 2016. For the January-March period, Nanya Tech generated 18.79 billion New Taiwan dollars ($640 million) in sales. Its net profit of NT$7.2 billion for the period was up 120% from a year ago.

Lee sees the strongest demand for DRAM coming from data centers. Such a trend could last for a long time, Lee said, as the need to tackle massive data and complicated artificial intelligence computing continues to be pressing.

Nanya Tech does not supply DRAM for data center servers now but it is engaging with various builders such as Facebook, Google, Amazon, Baidu, Tencent Holdings, and Alibaba Group Holding in the hopes of gaining some orders. The company supplies many PC makers such as Asustek Computer, HP and Dell, while it also sells to Huawei and ZTE, and various consumer electronic brands.  

However, Lee said his company is still careful about the market outlook as its bigger rivals like Samsung and SK Hynix are expanding DRAM capacity to meet robust market demand, which could drive DRAM prices lower by the end of 2018.

"We are seeing DRAM price peaking in the next quarter and we expect to see a correction of price next year," said Avril Wu, an analyst at Taipei-based DRAMeXchange.

Wu add the DRAM price has risen some 60% since the third quarter of 2016 and a healthy price correction of 20% to 30% looks likely in 2019 when major chipmakers are all adding output.

But she said it's not possible for any Chinese emerging player to make a dent in the Taiwanese market by the end of 2019 for the DRAM segment. 

"For the DRAM segment, we don't see Chinese emerging players would have any influence by 2019. There is still a high possibility that these projects could delay a lot due to high entry barriers in technologies," said Wu.

Wu add that it would be at least 2020 before these Chinese players will be able to add pressure on smaller existing manufacturers like Nanya Tech and Winbond. They would then need even more time to narrow the gap with market leaders like Samsung, Wu said. 

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