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Long before Tim Cook became Apple’s boss, when his job was to wring costs out of the company’s supply chain, he learned of a problem with a supplier in China. “This is really bad,” he told his staff. “Someone should be in China driving this.” Thirty minutes later he saw one of his executives sitting at a table. “Why are you still here?” he asked quietly. The executive stood up, drove directly to San Francisco’s airport and bought a ticket to China.
Mr Cook’s bet on China extended beyond its factories to its consumers. Sales to the region have risen from next-to-nothing in 2010 to $52bn last year, or almost a fifth of Apple’s revenues. Since Donald Trump’s election in 2016, “Tim Apple” (as America’s president once called him) has jetted to Washington and Beijing to try to ease rising trade tensions between the two superpowers. Horace Dediu, a technology analyst, says Mr Cook “knows how to navigate the political mind”.
Given his reputation as a logistical mastermind, it is worth asking why he has ignored the first rule of supply-chain management: the risk of keeping too many important eggs in one basket. In Mr Cook’s case, that basket is China. The trade bust-up is getting uglier. If it leads to an anti-American backlash in China, it could spell trouble for Apple—and for Mr Cook personally.
Mr Cook’s lobbying has helped Apple avoid direct hits from Mr Trump’s tariffs, already imposed on $250bn-worth of Chinese imports. But its shares have fallen by almost 12% in the past month. On June 1st, after The Economist went to press, China was expected to retaliate with tariffs on $60bn of American goods, including components for Apple devices. Mr Trump has threatened a levy of 25% on $300bn more of imports if trade talks do not produce a breakthrough. This would cover the iPhone, by far Apple’s biggest source of revenue. Morgan Stanley, a bank, estimates that it could add $160 to the cost of a $999 iPhone xs. Apple could absorb the cost or pass it on to buyers. Either way, profits would suffer.
A more immediate threat may be a Chinese reprisal for the Trump administration’s decision in May, on national-security grounds, to stop American companies from supplying Huawei, China’s tech champion (and the biggest seller of smartphones in China), with chips, software and other technology. A Chinese consumer boycott of Apple products could accelerate their shift towards other, cheaper brands. Because of the trade tensions, Citi, a bank, has halved its forecast for iPhone sales in China in the second half of this year, from almost 14.5m to 7.2m units.
One fix would be for Apple to develop another indispensable product that no self-respecting affluent Chinese consumer could do without. For all his success, Mr Cook has not yet managed this. Another would be to develop services that do not need production in China. Apple’s much-trailed announcement in March of new video-streaming, payments and other services shows it is trying. They may prove a hit, but would be no substitute for the iPhone. Mr Cook must be hoping that he has not miscalculated the risks to the supply chains he has so intricately engineered.