Asia is poised to become the "new" Detroit.
Here in the United States, at a cost of a mere $3 billion, the "Cash-for-Clunkers" program appears to have given new hope to the U.S. auto industry.
But that new hope is destined to be short-lived.
It's true that – in terms of value delivered for the money invested – "Cash for Clunkers" has eclipsed every other stimulus program that has been tried. But the program has a projected lifespan of only three months, meaning it can't reverse the powerful global forces that are destined to turn the U.S. auto market from leader to laggard on the global stage.
Financial Crisis Fallout Reshapes Sector
Thanks to the financial crisis whose impact continues to be felt, worldwide automobile demand had dropped on an overall basis since 2008.
But regional differences are already emerging.
In the United States, for instance, the benchmark seasonally adjusted annual sales rate (SAAR) finally jumped up past the 11-million mark in July after failing to eclipse the "breakeven point" of 10 million vehicles in any prior month this year. But the actual year-to-date sales of 5.81 million vehicles through July was still 33% below the 8.55 million that had been sold by that point in 2008, and is 67% below and 65% below the decade average of 16.4 million.
(Prior to the global financial crisis and accompanying recession – which prompted the U.S. auto industry to restructure and shift its breakeven point down to 10 million vehicles – the breakeven point was actually 16 million vehicle sales in a year. Below that point, several or all of the U.S. "Big Three" would be spinning their wheels in red ink.)
It's a much different story abroad, however, where several markets are in a long-term growth mode. In India, for example, sales were up 31% on a year-over-year basis, while auto sales in China were an astonishing 70% above those of a year ago. Even if U.S. auto sales continue to improve, China's automobile market may outsell its U.S. counterpart for a full year for the first time ever.
Granted, India's auto market – around 2.5 million cars and light trucks a year – is still much smaller than either China or the United States. However, its growth makes it comparable to the Japanese or German markets, the next largest automobile markets after its U.S. and China counterparts.
That's why Asia will become the new Detroit – the future center of the automaking world.
Gone For Good?
In the United States, General Motors Corp. and Chrysler Group LLC have lost market share because of the government takeover. They are unlikely to get it back in spite of the debt costs they have relinquished through bankruptcy.
For Chrysler, the partnership with Fiat SpA (OTC ADR: FIATY) is unlikely to help much. Fiat is among the weakest of the European companies, and has not been competitive in the United States since the 1980s. The U.S. market is undoubtedly moving toward smaller automobiles. That trend is being "fueled" by the new Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) standards for 2015 and probably by higher fuel taxes for environmental and budget reasons. Nevertheless, it seems unlikely that the Chrysler/Fiat partnership will have the models to compete.
General Motors has the model range to compete in the United States. However, GM is doing much better in China, thanks largely to its joint venture with Shanghai Automotive Industry Corp., which expects to sell 1.4 million vehicles in 2009. Since GM is also selling Opel, its European operation, GM will find itself driven primarily by the demands of the Chinese market. Given the growth of that market, it will probably make the most economic sense for GM to become Chinese-owned. Politics may delay this, but probably only for a few years.
The United States' One "Better Idea"
Ford Motor Co. (NYSE: F) has picked up market share in the United States from GM and Chrysler's problems. It should benefit both from "Cash for Clunkers," and from the early stages of the U.S. market recovery. If GM and Chrysler continue to have difficulties, Ford may be in a good position here in the large U.S. market – as the most-effective manufacturer of the large automobiles that Americans continue to prefer – no matter what the government tells Ford to do.
Nor is that Ford's only competitive advantage going forward. Ford Europe is big and viable enough to allow Ford to remain credible as a producer of smaller cars, primarily in the higher price brackets.
Outside the United States, European manufacturers will find themselves increasingly confined to the luxury end of the market. However, as global incomes rise and the newly wealthy become brand-conscious – particularly in the emerging economies of Asia – that upscale portion of the auto market should continue to be strong.
Japanese and Korean manufacturers will continue to dominate their domestic markets. And such companies as Honda Motor Co. Ltd. (NYSE ADR: HMC), Toyota Motor Corp. (NYSE ADR: TM) and Kia Motors Corp., will also do well in the United States and Europe, and in countries where they have been able to establish viable local manufacturing operations, and lower labor costs.
But it will be the players from China and India who are destined to be the big market-share gainers on a global basis.
The New Leaders
For U.S. investors, India's Tata Motors Ltd. (NYSE ADR: TTM) is the best known of the newly emerging global auto elite. Tata's $2,500 for-the-masses "Nano" car has been well received. Over the long term, the Nano may expand the entry-level portion of the worldwide auto market, forcing other manufacturers to produce equivalent low-price models.
Indeed, the introduction of $2,500 cars may greatly expand the market's size in India and other emerging markets, much as Ford's Model T did after its introduction in 1908, or the Volkswagen AG (OTC ADR: VLKAY) VW Beetle did in the 1950s and 1960s.
Tata looked to be in financial difficulty after it bought the loss-making Jaguar and Land Rover brands in 2008 at the top of the market. However, the $300 million loan for its Jaguar Land Rover Unit announced on Aug. 10 gives Tata the room it needed to maneuver. Market growth in India, combined with the strength of its Tata Group parent now suggest that Tata Motors has the strength to survive without dismemberment.
The bottom line: Tata and its India-based competitors – Maruti Suzuki India Ltd. (Mumbai: MSIL) and Mahindra and Mahindra Ltd. (London: MHID) – as well as such top China carmakers as Chery Automobile Co. Ltd. (still publicly owned), Geely Automobile Holdings Ltd. (OTC: GELYF) and Great Wall Motor Co. (OTC: GWLLF), are thus the companies that will see most growth in the automotive market of the decade to come.
By 2020, the global auto sector will look nothing like it does today. Given that most of the muscle will be in Asia, investors shouldn't be surprised.
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