U.S. might block Wolfspeed deal



German chipmaker Infineon Technologies and U.S. LED lighting maker Cree warned on Wednesday that Cree's agreed $850 million sale of its Wolfspeed Power unit to Infineon might not go ahead, citing U.S. government security concerns. The deal's woes underscore a drive by the United States to prevent the transfer of what it considers to be sensitive technology, even when the acquirer comes from a traditional ally, such as Germany, as opposed to country more likely to raise national security suspicions, such as China.

Infineon and Cree did not specify the nature of the U.S. security concerns. However, Wolfspeed makes devices using gallium nitride, a sensitive powdery compound that can have military applications and has been responsible for the U.S. blocking acquisitions in the past.

"This clearly shows that the U.S. government will protect what the defense industry has identified as important. The United States does not want to lose its edge, and in that regard it does not matter if the acquirer is from Germany or China," said Brian Chilton, a regulatory lawyer at DLA Piper LLP, who is not involved in the deal.

The Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States (CFIUS), which is the government panel that scrutinizes deals over possible security concerns, informed the two companies that the deal poses a risk to U.S. national security, Infineon said on Wednesday. It added that CFIUS had so far not identified any mitigation measures that would allow the deal to go through.

"Against this background, Infineon is of the opinion that there is a considerable risk that the transaction, as agreed, is not going to close," Infineon said, adding that it would work closely with CFIUS and Cree to find a solution.

Cree, in a separate statement, said the parties were exploring alternatives to modify the transaction. It said there was no guarantee that a new deal structure would remove CFIUS concerns. Infineon agreed to buy Wolfspeed - which includes a silicon carbide substrate business for power, RF and gemstone applications - last July, in a bet on new energy-efficient chips.

Last year, CFIUS blocked the $2.8 billion sale of Philips' (PHG.AS) components lighting division Lumileds to an investor consortium led by GO Scale Capital of China. The U.S. division of the Dutch company also manufactured components using gallium nitride. In December, Philips cut another deal to sell Lumileds to U.S. private equity firm Apollo Global Management LLC (APO.N) for $1.5 billion.

(Reporting by Christoph Steitz in Frankfurt and Liana B. Baker in San Francisco; Additional reporting by Greg Roumeliotis in New York; Editing by Georgina Prodhan, Leslie Adler and Lisa Shumaker)