Cryptocurrency miners are now influencing the fortunes of the world’s biggest chipmaker. Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Company (TSMC) is responsible for over half of the world’s market for chips, and it’s the world’s largest contract manufacturer. Today it reported revenues (pdf) driven by demand from cryptocurrency miners for the second consecutive quarter.
TSMC management were cagey about the exact contribution from crypto miners in the fourth quarter, declining to give specifics when questioned by investors. But its chief financial officer, Lorna Ho named “continuing demand for cryptocurrency mining” as one of two growth factors for the quarter, major mobile product launches being the other. In the previous reporting period, co-chief executive officer Mark Liu told investors that it received $350 to $400 million in revenue from crypto miners.
What can we glean about the state of cryptocurrency mining from TSMC’s latest call? We know that Bitmain, which dominates the cryptocurrency mining world, contracts its silicon from TSMC. It’s not clear what other mining rig manufacturers use the Taiwanese foundry. It’s a fair assumption that the majority, if not all, of TSMC’s crypto mining business is from Bitmain.
While TSMC management is clearly trying to downplay the impact of crypto mining on its business by not divulging specifics, there are a few things we can infer from the earnings call. In the third quarter call, Liu said miner demand had grown in the third quarter, and “stayed on” in the fourth. That suggests revenue in the $350 to $400 million range.
So much for Q4. What about 2018? Liu, responding to a question from HSBC analyst Steven Conrad Pelayo, said that demand from miners saw a “strong increase” in the second half of last year. Demand has stayed “relatively flat” in the first weeks of 2018, he said. Ho, the CFO, said in the earnings press release that she expected strong demand from miners to continue into the first quarter.
Liu used his opening remarks on the earnings call to wriggle out of forecasting crypto’s impact on TSMC’s bottom line, saying the firm had “sized” demand from miners this year carefully. “[Cryptocurrencies] are still in its early stage of development, it is difficult for us to forecast its demand too far into the future with accuracy,” he claimed.
But Liu also larded his speech with language bullish on cryptocurrencies. He positioned crypto mining in the same technological arc as the personal computer, graphics cards, and smartphones, noting that TSMC was well placed to serve the nascent industry’s needs.
What’s more, the future of silicon chips would be defined by cryptocurrencies, he said (although he also erroneously lumped deep-learning in with crypto—perhaps because Bitmain makes chips for both deep learning and crypto mining). “We are quite certain that deep learning and blockchain technologies, which are the core technology [sic] of cryptocurrency mining, will lead to new ways of semiconductor innovation and demand for years to come.”