Ford Supplier Says US-China Tensions Keep Batteries Costly

The billionaire chairman of SK Group, a key supplier to Ford Motor Co., said tensions between the US and China will keep electric-vehicle battery prices higher for longer.

(Bloomberg) — The billionaire chairman of SK Group, a key supplier to Ford Motor Co., said tensions between the US and China will keep electric-vehicle battery prices higher for longer.

“Due to the geopolitics and the supply chain, the schedule has been changed,” Chey Tae-won said in a rare interview. “Without that, actually, I could have lowered down much more the cost of the battery side.”

South Korean companies including SK On Co. — which is building three battery plants with Ford in the US — are at the center of the Biden administration’s bid to wean the auto industry off its dependence on China for the powertrains of the future. But meeting requirements under the Inflation Reduction Act to source raw materials and components from elsewhere to qualify EV models for tax credits are a massive undertaking, as China dominates the industry.

The stakes are high, with batteries accounting for around 40% of the cost of EVs. The longer that packs are pricey, the more time it will take for electric vehicles to reach parity with cars powered by combustion engines.

Ford and SK On received a conditional commitment for a $9.2 billion loan from the US Department of Energy in June to support the EV battery plants they’ve started to construct in Kentucky and Tennessee. Other Korean battery companies partnering with automakers in the US include General Motors Co. and LG Energy Solution Ltd., and Stellantis NV and Samsung SDI Co.

SK has been forced to look elsewhere for key materials and “cannot 100% rely on” China, Chey said.

“Everybody’s looking around at how we can actually make safe the supply chain,” he said. “Even my battery company recently visited Africa and South America to try to find some other options how we can get some supply from other options rather than China.”

‘The Old Days’

Navigating varying regulations in different countries and regions has been difficult compared to “the old days,” when rules governing commerce were more consistent. “Right now, the market’s got a bit fragmented and each market has their own rules and their own regulations,” Chey said.

Chey, 62, was speaking in Paris, where he’s helping to promote South Korea’s bid to host the World Expo in 2030 in Busan. Korea’s second-largest city is up against Riyadh and Rome, with the vote coming Nov. 28.

SK Group’s operations range from batteries and chips to chemicals and telecoms. After Samsung, it’s South Korea’s second-largest chaebol — the tightly controlled, family-run conglomerates that have powered the country’s growth.

Chey said he welcomed confirmation that Washington had granted Korean semiconductor companies including SK Hynix Inc. permission to continue shipping advanced chipmaking equipment to China. About 27% of SK Hynix’s revenue last year came from the neighboring country, according to the company’s annual report.

“It’s good news, I’m happy to have that,” said Chey, who has a net worth of $2.3 billion according to Bloomberg’s Billionaires Index. “Our semiconductor reserve is the memory semiconductor, so what I’m saying is it’s a kind of commodity. You don’t have to be strict on the commodity itself.”

In another potential flash point with China, SK Hynix is investigating how its memory chips ended up in Huawei Technologies Co.’s new smartphone after they were identified in a TechInsights teardown of the Mate 60 Pro for Bloomberg News. The company said it hadn’t done business with Huawei since the US imposed sanctions on the Chinese company.

Chey said it was a “mystery” how Huawei secured the chips. “If we had our own distribution channel then we’re definitely not using that channel anymore, according to our internal investigations. It’s not our channels, but somebody else and somebody else is saying that I’m the end user.”

Broader semiconductor market conditions are “not good,” Chey said. “There’s an oversupply, and especially on the memory side.”

Shrinking Returns

Shrinking the size of the chip is the main problem, he said, and returns are diminishing. “If you really want to have that advanced semiconductor, we have to put in a lot of capital. Sometimes it doesn’t actually pay off,” he said. “Usually, when you introduce a new technology, you can actually cost-cut more than 30% — these days, less than 10%.”

Amid the semiconductor industry’s sharp slowdown, SK Hynix reported an operating loss of 2.88 trillion won ($2.13 billion) in the latest quarter. Chey said that while chip cycles now last longer, he hopes conditions improve next year.

Ahead of the World Expo vote, Chey highlighted how Korea’s key role in EVs and other technologies mean it could take a leading position uniting the world to fight climate change. “There’s a lot of protectionism and geopolitics, but in order to get any kind of solution, especially for the climate change, we need more global solidarity,” Chey said.

Some 25 years since taking over from his father Chey Jong-hyon, he also revealed that he’s begun succession planning. 

“I’m really thinking and I have to prepare that,” he said. “And if I have a certain type of accident then, well, who’s going to lead the whole group? I need some succession plan.”

He added: “I have my own plan, but it’s not actually time to disclose yet.”

–With assistance from Heejin Kim, Heesu Lee, Yoolim Lee, Yoojung Lee and Shinhye Kang.

(Updates with background in the fifth paragraph.)

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