Saturday, March 12, 2011

How fragmented is China's auto industry?

For anyone wondering where I've been for the past several months, I've been right here at my desk. But instead of posting to this blog, I've been in a push to complete a full first draft of my dissertation by the end of March -- which is beginning to look like a real possibility.

For now, here's a quick post of some numbers I've been looking at for the past few days on market shares in China's auto industry.

Probably the most consistent component of China's auto policy since the mid-80s has been the insistence of the central government on consolidation in the industry. Just looking at the raw numbers, I think most people would agree that this demand has been completely justified.

In 1978, the year that Deng Xiaoping launched the first experimental market reforms in China, there were 55 auto assemblers. The number peaked at 124 in the mid-90s, and by 2008 (the latest numbers available) there were still 117 -- clearly, way too many.

But just how fragmented is China's auto industry? Here is a quick comparison with the US.

This chart compares cumulative 2010 market shares for the top five auto companies in the US and China.

If China were to take the US as its example, then it would seem to have already achieved a fair amount of consolidation. China’s largest auto group has a slightly larger share of its market than does the largest automaker in the U.S., and the top five in both markets are practically even.

Of course, we already know that the US market is somewhat less concentrated than it used to be. In 1980, for example, the Detroit Three held 76 percent of the US market. But I think few people would argue that less concentration in the US market has not been good for consumers.

So while it would appear that China is starting to see some solid growth out of the players at the top of its auto industry, the problem lies with all of those tiny companies at the bottom that, for some reason, refuse to go away.

Who are these small players? Quite a few are small, locally-owned automakers that lack any kind of scale to be profitable. In any given year, they probably break even on a cash flow basis, which means that the local government is absorbing their cost of capital. If exposed to true market competition, these small firms would quickly disappear.

So why haven't they? Local governments don't want them to. They employ anywhere from a few dozen to maybe even a few hundred local people, and local governments are not inclined to create any more of an unemployment problem than they have to.

Of course, the central government, through the NDRC or MIIT, could force these local enterprises to close, but why would they? The central government is no more interested in putting people out of work than are the local governments.

So if we simply accept that some of these small players are part of a welfare system that keeps people gainfully employed, then China's leaders should at least be satisfied that, at the top of its auto industry, it appears to have the makings of an increasingly strong and competitive industry. Right?

I don't think so, and this next chart reveals why.

Here we have the top five companies in both the US and China along with their respective market shares.

What I notice about this chart is that each of the companies on the US side also corresponds with a brand, but each of the companies on the Chinese side is just a big old state-owned enterprise that assembles cars for foreign companies.

SAIC makes most of its money selling VW and GM cars. Dongfeng sells Nissan and Citroen. FAW sells Toyota and VW. Chang'an sells Ford, Mazda and Suzuki. BAIC sells Hyundai and Mercedes.

Yes, each of these companies also sells some cars under its own brand, but the numbers are comparatively small. Overall, only 30.9 percent of sedans sold in China in 2010 were of local brands -- up only slightly from 30 percent in 2009.

And therein lies the problem. China's central government wants its biggest SOEs to get bigger so that they can compete with the foreign multinationals. For now, they would just like to dominate in their own market, but eventually, they want to compete in overseas markets as well.

The problem is that, while these SOEs are indeed developing their own brands, it's just so easy to sit back and rake in profits while the foreigners contribute all of the intellectual property.

Designing your own stuff is hard.


  1. I dont understand the view China has to be able to compete now?

    "A 2008 study by the Georgia Institute of Technology concluded that within the next decade or two, China would pass the United States in its ability to transform its research and development into products and services that can be marketed to the world."

  2. Who said anything about China being able to compete now?

    What I'm pointing out above is how far China is away from being able to compete. China's SOEs -- the backbone of the industry -- all primarily make cars for someone else.

    That Georgia Tech study may be right for some industries, but I don't think any researcher can make a blanket statement that China will surpass the US in *every* industry.

    Chinese companies have been building cars for foreigners for three decades, why do you suppose they still can't build cars of their own up to the same quality standards?

    Is it because the Chinese are incapable? Of course not.

    There's a problem with the system in which they operate. The incentives for SOEs to outperform private sector automakers (in terms of quality) are simply not in place. Until that changes, China will always be playing catch-up.

  3. Good article. You are right, the system sucks. It prevents innovations and the possibility of making great companies. China's auto industry has been around for three decades but still couldn't design and make its own reliable car engines.


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