Yesterday China Bureau Chief of Automotive News, Yang Jian posted an interesting article (free registration reqd.) speculating as to possible consequences of a recent slowdown in auto sales in China. In the first two months of 2012, auto sales decreased four percent, year-on-year – and this comes on the heels of (for China) a rather anemic 2011 in which sales only grew about 2.5% and Chinese-branded passenger vehicles gave up nearly two percentage points in market share to the foreign brands.
In short, Yang Jian's point is that, should this drop in sales become a trend that lasts through 2012, some of the weaker players in China's auto industry could be forced into bankruptcy or possibly out of business altogether.
From the perspective of China's central government, which has been begging and pleading for this heavily fragmented industry to consolidate itself for nearly three decades, this wouldn't be such a bad thing. (Of course it would be a bad thing for the employees of those companies that went out of business.) There are still well over 100 vehicle manufacturers operating in China (compared to only 24 in the United States), and this fragmentation prevents the industry as a whole from becoming more competitive vis-à-vis the foreign automakers.
So what is the likelihood that a decline in sales could lead to a shakeout of the weaker players? Well, let's take a look at what happened the last time China's auto industry experienced a slowdown in sales growth. After enjoying annual sales growth of anywhere between 14% and 37% since 2001, the onset of the Great Recession in 2008 caused China's growth rate to drop to a horrifyingly low 7%. (Yes, the word “horrifyingly” should be interpreted sarcastically.)
I remember talking to a lot of auto industry insiders in China in the spring of 2009 when some of them lamented the fact that the much hoped-for shakeout didn't happen back then. (And it seems like Yang Jian himself may have been among those who expressed such sentiment to me then.)
Why didn't the shakeout happen?
The central government rode to the rescue with a far-reaching stimulus program that not only prevented another year of miserably low sales growth, but that, for the first time ever, launched China into position as the world's single largest market for automobiles in 2009. Hence the lamentations from some of my interviewees at the time. As Yang Jian hopes today, many of them also hoped soft sales growth would kill off some of the weaker players in 2009.
So will the central government ride to the rescue again this year?
I think it is less likely. With large cities in China already limiting the number of cars that can be sold and driven on their streets, and with the central government clamping down on overcapacity in the industry, AND now that China is already the number one auto market in the world (they can't go any higher), a rescue is probably not in the cards.
Does that mean a shakeout will occur?
I wouldn't bet on that either. Among the top-10 automakers, Chang'an, Chery and BYD each experienced sales declines in 2011, which doesn't look good for them. Except that Chang'an is among China's “Big 4” and Chery is among China's “Small 4.” What this means is that the central government has designated these automakers to be among those remaining after the industry consolidates. And BYD is privately-owned (its shares are traded in Hong Kong), and, though it hasn't sold as many EVs and hybrids as it had hoped to by now, it is probably China's best chance of having an automaker who can compete in this space.
Will a shakeout then occur among the dozens of tiny, inefficient and unprofitable automakers scattered around the country?
I think this is the best hope, but whether the downturn will be deep enough and long enough to outlast local governments' ability to prop up these firms remains to be seen. Local governments tend to be rather fond of their automakers -- even the ones that lose money.