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.
Do NOT try to do this yourself.
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.