New vehicle sales have staged a phenomenal recovery from the financial crisis, when buyers went on strike. Sales below the replacement rate create a vacuum that wants to be filled. Pent-up demand. When it kicked in, sales jumped by over 10% annually. Exuberance took over the bludgeoned industry. But late February, something happened to that vacuum.
Entries in Cars, Trucks & Crashes (24)
The announcement couldn’t have been more glorious in crisis-struck Italy: Ferrari booked records sales and profits in 2012. Dazzling in every aspect. Not a single cloud darkened the horizon. Except in Italy where sales collapsed. And in the rest of the world, where central-bank printer ink stained the records.
The preannouncement came Thursday evening: PSA Peugeot Citroën, France’s largest automaker, would have a write-down of €4.7 billion. On top of a hefty operating loss. It would be colossal. An all-time record. Rumors spread immediately that PSA would need a bailout. The second in four months.
Japan’s LDP went all out last year to re-grab power. Its platform: print and borrow with utter abandon to create asset bubbles and inflation, and to demolish the yen. Phenomenally successful! So far. But now, US automakers are squealing; they want President Obama to fight back—though the US has been printing and borrowing with utter abandon for years.
“Volkswagen has chosen to wipe out PSA,” said a source in President Hollande’s entourage. PSA Peugeot Citroën, Europe’s second largest automaker, is teetering. Volkswagen Group, Europe’s largest automaker, is an invincible giant—that wants to reduce overcapacity in Europe “on the backs of the French,” the source said. Hence a secret plan, a desperate, misbegotten, and taxpayer-funded deal.
On September 14, 1899, Henry Bliss stepped off a streetcar in Manhattan and got run over by a taxi. The first automobile fatality in the US. The taxi was an electric vehicle. As were 90% of the taxis in the city and about 30% of all cars sold in the US. Electric cars aren’t exactly new. Yet, the government is bleeding taxpayers to advance that technology, create jobs at a cost of $158,556 per job, and fund executive bonuses.
The Paris auto show should have been exciting. Over 100 new models from econo-boxes to exotic prototypes. Chicks next to some of them. Nausea-inducing colors, downsized motors. Something for everyone. But it had been preceded by supplier events loaded with the dire verbiage of an industry on a death march. Particularly in France, whose private sector is veering into economic fiasco. And on Monday, it became official.
Last year, German exports rode to a new record, jobs were being created in massive numbers, real wages rose, housing and real estate boomed, the federal budget was nearly balanced, and consumers felt good and spent money. There were moments in 2012 that made people dream of a repeat performance—despite the havoc that the Eurozone debt crisis has been wreaking. But now, the German export machinery is shifting down with an ear-piercing screech.
The strongest and toughest creatures out there that no one has been able to subdue yet, the inexplicable American consumers, are digging in their heels though the entire power structure has been pushing them relentlessly to buy more and more with money they don’t have, and borrow against future income they might never make, just so that GDP can edge up for another desperate quarter. But it’s been tough.
2010 was a magical year in China. Among the world records: 18 million new vehicles sold. Due to unprecedented stimulus, sales had skyrocketed 33% that year and 54% in 2009—mind-boggling. It catapulted China to the number one new-vehicle market in the world, far ahead of the US which had never sold that many units in a single year. And it gave rise to a surge in production capacity. But now, the China auto bubble is emitting a sharp hiss.
"Despite all of the rhetoric to the contrary, it looks like the air got let out of the balloon," commented the members of the Survey Panel of the ISM-Chicago Business Survey; the closely watched numbers had suddenly taken a turn for the worse. But the phenomenon wasn’t limited to the Chicago area. And now there are real reasons for concern.
To save $2 billion in some distant year—at least that’s the official story—GM bought 7% of French automaker PSA Peugeot Citroën. Perhaps it hoped that the alliance would bail out its bleeding subsidiary Opel. But what GM bought into was one of the most uncompetitive automakers in one of the toughest auto markets in the world. And there is no happy end in sight.
Europe with its relatively affluent population of 500 million has turned into a nightmare for the auto industry. And the R-word—restructuring—unpalatable and almost illegal as it is in Europe, is being bandied about, this time by Fiat-Chrysler CEO Sergio Marchionne, who, as President of the European Automobile Manufacturers' Association, spoke for all EU automakers. It was a dire warning and a cry for help.
The latest success—I suppose you could call it that, at least for those involved on the financial end—was the Kiekert deal last week. The company was founded in 1857 near Düsseldorf, Germany, and became the largest manufacturer of automotive door-lock systems. Its customers are GM, Ford, VW, BMW, and other automakers around the world. But now a Chinese company bought Kiekert, the sign of a sea change.
In France, new vehicle registrations are plunging: -17.8% in December, -20.7% in January, -20.2% in February. French automakers suffered the most. PSA Peugeot Citroën -29.2% and Renault -28.5%. The German auto industry is still basking in last year’s glow of record worldwide sales and profits, and record bonuses for their beaming employees. But so far this year, they have been stagnating. And it’s just the beginning.
Supercar enthusiasts went into a tizzy when Honda announced that it would bring its Acura NSX back to life. Design and manufacturing would be shifted from Japan to Ohio. And much of the production would be exported. It won’t add much volume to Honda’s production, but it will be a technology showcase. And a precursor that the math of manufacturing in America is changing.
Practically every car or truck sold in the US today contains Chinese-made components, though Chinese-designed vehicles haven't made it yet. Chinese automakers scramble to move from nice-looking but shoddy copy-and-paste models to reliable products that would be competitive in the US. It’s a government priority. And they’re getting there through the back door.
The US trade deficit with China will hit a record $300 billion for the year, a big hit to the economy. It’s politically convenient to blame China, particularly its yuan policy. But the driver is a broad strategy by US corporations to shift an increasing range of economic activities to China. And now a trade war has broken out. Politicians, have a word with your corporate sponsors!
A convoy of 20 supercars was speeding down the Chūgoku Expressway, trying to get to a supercar gathering in Hiroshima. The mere sight of such an apparition can turn heads and cause accidents. The convoy entered a left-hand bend at 90–100 mph, though the posted speed limit was 50 mph. The highway was wet. And the rest was very expensive.
Alabama immigration law, a Mercedes-Benz executive from Germany, and Republican bifurcation on illegal immigrants: and the outcome was ... flip-flopping.