Why Overcapacity Continues to Plague the Auto Industry

by: Alpha Author

As I’ve mentioned before, although the auto industry seems to have stabilized in the wake of the financial crisis (and I see that as a good thing), overcapacity continues to be the major, long-term problem facing automakers (see Auto Industry’s Big Little Problem).

An article in last week’s issue of the Economist reiterated that concern (see Danger Ahead).

According to the Economist:

THE mood at the Detroit motor show this year was very different from the dark days of 2009. Then, bosses of American car companies wondered if their firms would survive. Now, thanks to $60 billion of federal finance and the cold shower of bankruptcy to wash away their debts, General Motors (NYSE:GM) and Chrysler are still alive, while Ford’s (NYSE:F) canny financial manoeuvring before the crisis allowed it to clean up its act and roar back to record profits.

Yet the industry’s problems are not behind it. The American rescues averted catastrophe, but they—along with continued European subsidies—have exacerbated the overcapacity that has dogged the sector for years. The car industry can produce 94m cars a year, against global demand of 64m. Unless that changes, it will never return to health.

I agree. Unless massive productive capacity is eliminated from the industry or demand explodes by 50% (not very likely), there will need to be another shake out in the industry.

The interesting thing about the article is that for many years we’ve been told by industry participants and observers that growth in China would help ameliorate the overcapacity concerns. However, as the Economist article astutely points out, it’s not clear that demand growth in China and/or other emerging markets will finally rid the industry of its overcapacity problems. This is because upstarts in those emerging markets continue to add capacity to the industry, and it’s unclear that demand growth in the emerging world will continue at its torrid pace.

Developments in China are likely to make things worse still for rich-world companies. China too has a surplus of car manufacturers, excess capacity and a problem with demand. Annual sales growth is forecast to fall from 30% to around 10%…

And the issues are not limited to the U.S., China, or India. Europe’s automakers face similar overcapacity and productivity problems.

…tough labour laws and government stakes in some firms—a German Land, Lower Saxony, owns 20% of Volkswagen (OTCPK:VLKAF), for instance, and the French government owns 15% of Renault (OTC:RNSDF)—discourage them from shedding workers. As a result, despite the biggest crisis in living memory in the industry, firms are failing to rationalize.

The question then remains: What gives? Where will the much needed capacity rationalization come from??

This has all the makings of a multi-country “my industrial national champion is more important than your industrial national champion” kind of a spat.

Disclosure: No positions