Monday, January 30, 2012

Chinese-branded cars lost market share in 2011

In early 2009 China's government released a fairly comprehensive policy for the auto industry called the "Automobile Industry Adjustment and Stimulus Plan (汽车产业调整和振兴规划)." 

Among the major targets included in this plan was for an increase in market share of China's home-grown auto brands (also known as 自主品牌). One of the targets was for Chinese-branded  passenger cars (轿车, aka, sedans) to increase domestic market share to 30 percent in three years' time (by the end of 2011).  (Up from about 26 percent at the end of 2008.)

China's auto industry enjoyed robust sales growth of 48 percent in that very year, giving the Chinese brands a 29.7 percent market share by the end of 2009.  And just in case the leaders weren't satisfied with rounding up to 30, Chinese brands achieved a 30.9 percent market share by the end of 2010.

Unfortunately, the tide turned against manufacturers of Chinese-branded cars in 2011, causing them to lose market share for the first time. Though the absolute number of Chinese-branded cars sold increased, foreign-branded car sales grew at a faster rate, dropping the domestic brands to a 29.1 percent market share -- just in time to miss the target that had been set out for them three years earlier.

And this came in a year during which luxury automakers enjoyed enviable sales growth in China: Audi-37%, BMW-37%, JaguarLandRover 61%, Cadillac-73%.

Why did Chinese cars suddenly lose market share to the foreign brands?

Did quality decline? Not at all!  In fact, Chinese brands have been closing the quality perception gap with the foreign automakers.

What happened was that another provision in the "Adjustment and Stimulus Plan" of 2009 distorted sales growth in 2009 and 2010.  The plan included a 50 percent cut in auto sales taxes for vehicles with engine sizes of 1.6 liters or less -- in other words, small cars.

The stimulus really worked! In 2009 sales of cars in the 1.6 liter and below segment grew 71 percent while sales in all other passenger car segments grew by "only" 23 percent. And the beauty of this stimulus plan was that, at the time of its introduction, fully 85 percent of the market for 1.6 liter and under cars was occupied by Chinese brands.  This was none other than a plan to stimulate sales of Chinese brands.

The stimulus also worked in 2010, but it was later halved to only a 25 percent sales tax cut, and then, by the end of 2010, the stimulus was lifted completely -- resulting in disappointing performance in 2011.

Of course, we can't blame it all on lifting of the stimulus because, once the stimulus was enacted in 2009, foreign automakers scrambled to enter the 1.6 liter and below segment as quickly as possible.

Still, this does illustrate well the distorting effects of government schemes on markets. And it is somewhat ironic that the same plan that brought such growth in 2009, took it away once the stimulus provision was allowed to expire.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

GM Wants its 1% back. Good luck.

GM announced yesterday (again) that it wants to repurchase a one percent stake in its joint venture with Shanghai Auto (SAIC) that it sold for a handful of magic beans a few years ago.

Back in December of 2009, GM and SAIC announced a major change to their partnership which involved GM selling one percent of the SAIC-GM joint venture (JV) to SAIC for $85 million.  This announcement also included details on a new Hong Kong-registered joint venture through which GM and SAIC would partner to conduct business in other countries, primarily India.

The net result was that GM and SAIC were no longer 50:50 owners in the main China JV.  With the one percent transfer, SAIC became the majority owner with a 51 percent stake.  On paper at least, GM had been reduced to the role of junior partner.

At the time, GM management explained that the purpose of the one percent transfer was in consideration of some future help from SAIC.  And though it wasn't explicitly stated, GM statements sort of hinted that SAIC's help may come in the form of help with future funding.

Early speculation was that GM needed the money.  And since GM had emerged from bankruptcy only a few months earlier, that seemed to make sense, except that, in the whole scheme of things, $85 million didn't really seem like a lot of money.  At year-end 2009, the company had over $14 billion in cash on its balance sheet, so it wasn't cash poor.  And with a current ratio (current assets/current liabilities) of 1.13, it wasn't facing an impending liquidity crisis.

Since I happened to be in Shanghai only a few weeks after this announcement was made, and since I was fortunate enough to land an interview with a senior SAIC executive who was integral to the negotiations with GM, I asked the SAIC executive to explain why GM would give up any leverage it had over the JV for a measly $85 million.  His explanation made a little more sense.

In short, SAIC wanted to be able to consolidate the top-line revenues of the JV into its parent company income statement, and under accounting rules, it could only do this if it owned more than 50 percent of the company.  Chinese companies were (and are) under a great deal of pressure from Beijing to move up in the rankings of the Global Fortune 500, and since the Fortune list looks at sales, not profits, SAIC needed to make its sales number bigger.

Does this sound ridiculous?  It did to me too.  But it's also the truth, as this particular executive, on two different occasions, emphasized to me the importance of moving up the list of the Fortune 500.

So what did GM get for handing over control?  According to the SAIC executive, GM wanted desperately to continue expanding its global footprint, but was facing two hurdles.  First, as GM had recently exited bankruptcy, the terms it could receive on bank lending were highly unfavorable.  Second, still being majority owned by the taxpayers of the US, GM was restricted in its ability to fund any activity that didn't somehow create American jobs or shore up the US-side of its business.

And this is where SAIC came in.  Through this partnership, SAIC, with its stellar credit rating, not to mention being a major state-owned corporation with access to favorable loan terms from both state-owned mainland banks as well as Hong Kong banks, would be able to help GM out with its funding needs overseas.

The SAIC executive did suggest that GM and SAIC could have entered into an agreement whereby the two companies would create an entirely separate sales JV to which all vehicles manufactured would be sold.  Then SAIC would own 51 percent of the sales JV, also allowing it to consolidate revenue into the parent company's income statement.  (SAIC and its other major partner, Volkswagen have a similar arrangement.)

However, this particular arrangement didn't work for GM either as, once again, GM's government minders in Washington were not interested in entering into any arrangements that didn't serve the interests of the US.

Fast-forward a couple of years, and now GM wants its one percent back.  The only way I can see this happening is if GM were to agree to set up the sales organization that SAIC had first proposed, which may be possible now that the US government is no longer a majority owner in GM (though still technically the controlling owner).

Of course, since the time of that transaction, GM has been very vocal about the importance of the China market to the company's future.  In fact, GM now sells more vehicles in China than in the US (2.6 million vehicles in China vs 2.5 million in US in 2011.)

One wonders how eager SAIC will be to give up the majority control it has enjoyed for more than two years.  Furthermore, given the importance of its China JV, GM can probably expect to pay considerably more than $85 million for the return of its one percent.

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

End of the Road for Foreign Automakers in China?

Last week a story emerged that China's industrial planner, the National Development and Reform Commission (NDRC), has announced that it will stop supporting foreign investment in its auto industry. (News stories may be found here, here and here.)

This bit from a China Daily article explains a little about why these restrictions were being put in place:
China...has removed industries from the list of those it encourages foreign companies to invest in. No longer part of that group are automakers, large coal-to-chemical operations and manufacturers of polycrystalline silicon.

"The restrictions generally apply to industries that have excessively large capacities and that pollute the environment," said Zhang Xiaoji, senior researcher at State Council's development research center. (emphasis added)
My take on this story is that the NDRC actually has no real intention of restricting foreign investment in its auto industry. To understand why this is so, one needs only a limited understanding of the history of foreign involvement in China's auto sector, which I lay out in an op-ed in today's Asian Wall Street Journal.

In short, I make the claim that:
... the NDRC's announcement is more about improving Chinese leverage in negotiations with foreign automakers so Chinese automakers can more quickly overcome their innovation deficit.
For the rest of the op-ed at the WSJ site, click here.

And for all of the stories behind the main story of business-government relations in China's auto sector, my book, Designated Drivers: How China Plans to Dominate the Global Auto Industry, will be published by Wiley and Sons this year.

Coming to a bookstore, mailbox or e-reader near you in Spring 2012. Stay tuned!

I was just notified that my article was also picked up by WSJ's US op-ed page. It will run in Thursday's edition. (January 5)