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In recent years, the recurring troubles of the American Big 3 automakers have been coming to a head. General Motors (GM), Ford, and Daimler face a host of problems. Legacy costs inherited from past manufacturing heydays in the form of costly pension and health care plans for retired employees add up to hundreds of billions of dollars. Unappealing gas-guzzler product lines that are a step behind current auto buying trends aren't driving strong earnings, either; instead, the Big 3 are trying to pad flagging normal sales rates with price incentives. Finally, continuing tussles with the United Auto Workers make it hard to cut costs and downsize to profitability. Meanwhile, Asian and European competitors are rapidly outstripping these traditional auto manufacturing powerhouses.
Asian and European brands captured 54.2% of overall vehicle sales in June, edging out the 45.8% of sales that went to the U.S. brands, according to Autodata (see chart above), placing the Big Three in their weakest competitive position ever compared to their overseas rival. Until last year, there had never been a month that American car buyers preferred the combined offerings of Asian and European automakers to those of the Big Three.
The situation of the Big Three has become more tenuous as long-time Michigan democratic Congressman, John Dingell, was replaced as chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee by Californian Henry Waxman. What does this mean for the Big Three? As a long-time champion of America's automakers in the House of Representatives since 1955, Dingell used his chairmanship to protect the interests of Detroit automakers against Federal Government regulation, especially fuel economy standards. Conversely, Henry Waxman has aggressively and openly called for ever more stringent fuel economy regulations and less generous help for automakers. This change and the broad regulatory scope of the Energy and Commerce Committee will likely make any long-term Federal Government assistance for the Big Three both less forthcoming and less generous.
Despite a propensity to lump the Big Three together, it is important to understand the different strategic positions of each automaker. The best way to do this is by looking at the loan requests submitted to Congress during December 2008. GM reported that it will have to cease operations unless it gets $4 billion immediately, and $18 billion in longer term financing. Chrysler is in a similarly dire state, claiming to need $7 billion before year end. Ford appears to be in a relatively better position, claiming that it will not need to draw on government support unless business conditions deteriorate rapidly. Nevertheless, Ford is still requesting $9 billion in loan guarantees as a hedge.
The Big 3 auto woes strike North American auto components manufacturers particularly hard, and hit in more than one way. Reductions in production volume and capacity will obviously decrease sales for the parts suppliers, but spending cuts within the Big 3 infrastructure also translate into decreased earnings for suppliers.