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White House studying supply chain ‘stress tests’ after semiconductor shortages, sources say

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President Joe Biden holds a chip as he speaks prior to signing an executive order aimed at addressing a global semiconductor shortage, in the State Dining Room at the White House in Washington, U.S., February 24, 2021.

Jonathan Ernst | Reuters

The White House is studying whether to conduct supply chain “stress tests” given the recent shortage in semiconductors, sources told CNBC.

In early February, as a global semiconductor shortage caused automakers worldwide to slash targets and close factories, executives from Toyota Motor Company made surprising comments: In the near-term, the lack of available chips would have no impact on production volume.

“After the global financial crisis, we had a reflection on seeing a stop in our supply chain,” operating executive Jun Nagata explained to investors, detailing the “rescue” program created to assess each tier of its supply chain. For each part it deemed critical, Toyota “secured four to six months of stocks as necessary.”

As part of an ongoing review into critical supply chains, the Biden administration is considering making similar recommendations: Requesting supply chains undergo “stress tests” of hypothetical scenarios and suggesting that companies stockpile certain critical items, according to two senior administration officials and two people familiar with the review.

“The idea of making sure that companies have a better sense of their own supply chain vulnerabilities is clearly one of the things involved in the process,” said a senior administration official who declined to be identified because the review was neither complete nor public.

Government agencies meet weekly to discuss the issue and have not reached any final conclusions about which recommendations to issue. A first report focused on semiconductors, critical minerals, high capacity batteries and active pharmaceutical ingredients (APIs) is due June 4; a broader-based review will be conducted in the year to follow.

Any effort to mandate stress testing could run into legal hurdles, since Congress has given government agencies varying authority to regulate activities in respective industries. At the onset of the Covid pandemic, the Trump administration found particular shortcomings in the Department of Homeland Security’s ability to regulate supply chains, according to a former task force official. Meanwhile, agencies overseeing the energy and financial sectors have stricter regulatory authority.

The Federal Reserve is perhaps among the best known for conducting such tests, which require a bank to show detailed analysis about how its balance sheet would respond to hypothetical economic scenarios of different degrees of severity.

Wall Street banks have collectively amassed thousands of compliance personnel to assist in the completion of these exams. In the early days, several institutions were deemed to have “failed,” a determination that meant they could not increase shareholder returns through dividends or stock buybacks. In recent years, bank executives have praised the stress tests for preparing their portfolios to weather the economic shutdown during the pandemic in a relatively seamless way.

But the global undersupply of semiconductors is different from a shortfall in bank liquidity, according to analysts. A company can’t cut costs or pull financial levers to increase their availability of the product, which can sometimes take up to 120 days to produce.

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