Almost six months ago, Trump saved Qualcomm from being taken over by Broadcom as part of the largest tech acquisition in the history of trading, citing national security concerns. Today, Qualcomm was forced to admit defeat in by far its largest acquisition attempt to date, largely due to Trump’s economic policies, many of which are also citing national security concerns. The massive trade war that Washington started with Beijing earlier this year proved to be too much for the Chinese to tolerate, with the Far Eastern’s country antitrust body effectively killing Qualcomm’s proposed acquisition of NXP Semiconductors in the most precarious way possible – by staying silent.
The deadline for the $44 billion acquisition came and went at midnight EST, with Qualcomm’s executives already acknowledging the deal is likely dead during their earnings call on Wednesday. Today, they just made it official. As a result, Qualcomm’s diversification efforts are taking a massive hit at a time when Apple’s many lawsuits and tensions in its relations with other major clients are already threatening its core business – licensing. Without a clear path toward moving away from being so reliant on patent royalty rates, Qualcomm may find itself in hot water in the medium term, especially if reports of Apple ditching its modems come true. Yet Qualcomm’s stock surged nearly ten percentage points as soon as NASDAQ trading started earlier today because hey – buybacks. As previously promised, Qualcomm will soon be repurchasing some $30 billion worth of its stock, which will undoubtedly generate extra shareholder value in the near term but won’t put the company any closer to sustainable growth. On the other hand, acquiring an NFC pioneer with vast investments in a variety of emerging tech segments such as connected vehicles, general IoT, and mobile payments would certainly do so. Of course, Qualcomm still has one final ace up its sleeve in the form of 5G, but let’s first take a look how it got to where it is today.
Eight regulators around the world, including those in the U.S. and the European Union, approved Qualcomm’s NXP bid, with China being the only one that hasn’t even formally concluded its investigation after more then 20 months. The ongoing trade war makes its move extremely transparent but as much as Treasury Secretary Mnuchin is now complaining about unfair treatment, that’s exactly what was to be expected from China, a country whose government is as unified a set of executive bodies can get and that doesn’t have the word “fair” in its foreign affairs vocabulary. Case in point: ZTE.
The Trump administration stuck its neck out for the Shenzhen-based tech giant and clashed with its own political allies in order to save the state-owned company from bankruptcy after the Commerce Department hit it with a seven-year denial order due to a systematic lack of respect for international trade embargoes, also known as one of those rules whose violators are usually forced into insolvency. Not ZTE, though, but it’s not like China cares; the ZTE situation, no matter how messy, has been resolved, and the trade war is the next thing on the agenda. As it turns out, blocking one of the largest U.S. technology companies from expanding and solidifying its business is a really good way for any particular government to retaliate against what it perceives are unfair policies on Washington’s part. While even the Trump administration called the ZTE lifeline deal “a personal favor” to President Xi Jinping, Beijing apparently isn’t a big believer in favors. Sounds fair? Certainly not, but not even Qualcomm’s executives sounded surprised about the outcome of China’s antitrust review while speaking about it on Wednesday, so it’s strange that the Treasury Secretary seemingly was, especially after credible reports likened the Communist government’s competition body to a “stone wall” in regards to its willingness to advance the probe that should have allowed the chipmaker to go ahead with the purchase.
Qualcomm has been preparing for this worst-case scenario for a while now and communicated a confident message to shareholders earlier today, stating that its long-term growth and diversification strategy remains unchanged. Without the Dutch semiconductor firm, the chipmaker is in for a rough ride in a variety of sectors it’s presently trying to penetrate but one thing is certain – its 5G investments have just turned from hopeful commitments to all-in bets. The fifth generation of mobile networks is promising to enable a wide variety of new technologies, consequently creating countless new jobs and spurring economic growth. If Qualcomm manages to position itself at its forefront like it did with 4G, its long-term sustainability won’t be in danger. The thing is, back in 2010, the wireless competition wasn’t as aggressive as it is today, but with the rise of China’s Huawei which already owns a wide variety of 5G-related patents, Qualcomm may find it difficult to replicate the 4G lead and the success that stemmed from it with 5G.
While the current market conditions make long-term wireless tech dominance a much more difficult achievement than it was a decade ago, time isn’t on Qualcomm’s side in any other sense of that term either; if the company truly already managed to develop unrivaled 5G technologies, it needs to deploy them before its competitors have a chance to catch up. Qualcomm is already a large part of the reason why the U.S. wireless industry collectively promised nationwide 5G coverage by 2020 but given recent developments, the chipmaker may push for even faster large-scale buildouts because stock buybacks can only get you so far in terms of extra shareholder value and investors are a finicky kind of people not known for their patience. Of course, most of that may not matter if Qualcomm’s ousted Chairman Paul Jacobs somehow manages to realize his reported ambitions to take the company private and orchestrate a Steve Jobs-like return to San Diego, but there’s no realistic way such a thing could happen… probably.