Big Three Auto Woes

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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 Chrysler 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 and large capital investments in SUV and truck manufacturing equipment 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.[1] Conversely, Henry Waxman has aggressively and openly called for ever more stringent fuel economy regulations and less generous help for automakers.[2] 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.[3] 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.[4] Nevertheless, Ford is still requesting $9 billion in loan guarantees as a hedge.[5] Although the Senate eventually rejected these requests, the Bush Administration used $17.4 billion from funds allocated to the US Treasury under the Emergency Economic Stabilization Act of 2008, to keep Chrysler and General Motors (GM) from short-term insolvency. Ford did not receive any loans.

However long-term survival still remains unclear, both because the possibility of longer term government subsidy remains unclear, and because many now believe that the US auto market was artificially inflated during the past decade. Low interest loans and cheap leases led to a glut of consumption, illustrated by the following statistics: forty years ago only 6% of US households owned three or more cars, in 2000 that number was 18%; America currently has 244 million vehicles for its 202 million drivers.[6] At the same time, the quality of cars has improved considerably, which means that the average automobile can reliably be used for a decade.[7] This situation meant that automakers came to expect 16 million new car sales annually in the US. Most now believe the level of sustainable US fleet replacement is closer to 14 to 15 million per year.[8] While this will be an improvement over the 12 to 13 expected as the final tally for 2008, such a recovery will not be back to pre-recession levels.

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Toyota's eco-friendly offerings, including the hybrid electric Prius, are making it difficult for the Big 3 to compete.

Who wins from Big 3 woes?

  • Japan's own Big 3- Toyota, Nissan, Honda, and other prominent foreign car manufacturers are ready and waiting to fill the production capacity and demand vacuum left by the Big 3's failure to continue dominating the North American market.

Who loses?

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.

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