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'Turbulent' times for automobile markets

Latest update : 2008-07-25

In the wake of Renault chairman Carlos Ghosn's pessimistic comments, car industry specialist Denis Fainsilber tones down Volkswagen, PSA and Fiat's positive outlooks. He points out that Europe is moving ahead of the US.

Check out Douglas Herbert's blog entry about the state of the auto industry in France: Renault roiled.


In the past week, various European automobile manufacturers have adopted radically different approaches to the economic slowdown. On Wednesday, Volkswagen, PSA-Peugeot-Citroën and Fiat displayed their optimism by announcing unaltered growth forecasts. PSA saw its global sales grow by 4.6% in the first half of 2008.


The next day, the mood was somber as Renault and Daimler revised down their objectives. At least 5,000 job cuts are expected at Renault as the French manufacturer predicts a 3 million-car drop in sales next year. "Renault must be prepared for a period ahead which risks being turbulent," said Renault's executive chairman Carlos Ghosn. He added that the perspectives are likely to get worse in the automotive sector.


Denis Fainsilber, automobile specialist with the French business newspaper Les Echos, gave FRANCE 24 his views on the industry.


Why do Fiat, PSA and Volkswagen offer more resilience than other European car manufacturers?


They are not more resilient than others. It is just a way of seeing things; they have a more optimistic outlook. In fact they all agree that the European market will shrink by 4% this year. While sales fell by 2.7% in the first half of 2008, we can expect a much more difficult second half, with a 5 to 7% slump.


The PSA group is indeed doing better than last year, especially thanks to Citroën's good results, because it is now benefiting from a restructuration plan launched in 2007 [PSA has recently axed 14,000 jobs]. Yet it is still planning to close down two production lines [by 2010], at the Aulnay-sous-Bois factory and in Rennes, which are in jeopardy in the same way as Renault's Sandouville and Flins plants are.


Fiat, for its part, is not doing so well in Europe because it depends a lot on the Italian market, which is in a bad shape. The Italian manufacturer is closing its factories for six to eight weeks this summer, instead of the usual one-month break.


However, Fiat has been limiting the damage on the emerging Brazilian market, just like Volkswagen. The latter is also doing well out of its presence in China. Peugeot and Renault, for their part, are suffering from their excessive dependence on European markets.


Carlos Ghosn warned that "we are going to see a very challenging couple of years." How can car manufacturers limit the damage in the coming months?


All European manufacturers have the same problem: they have too many cars in stock and they cannot sell them because the euro exchange rate hinders exportation. There are also others factors, such as rocketing oil prices and rising raw material costs, including steel.


This has not yet reached crisis point. Each company is looking for its own solution. The factories are currently running at 60 to 70% of their capacity. To avoid closing down sites, which would cost them dearly, manufacturers slow down production at their plants temporarily. They would rather have two shifts running and pay the third team to stay at home.


In tough times like these, smaller models appear to sell better. In that area, Renault, PSA and Fiat are doing better than Daimler, whose models are too costly.


Big cars will need to be redesigned. They will have a market if they get lighter, because there is a direct link between fuel consumption and weight. There will still be a need for large cars: just look at the taxis on the streets of Paris.


Regarding SUVs, it looks like the end. Some manufacturers will be willing to take up the challenge and keep selling them. They will then have to make them more urban, lower, less aggressive, with a smaller engine – and 200kg lighter.


US manufacturers – General Motors, Ford and Chrysler – are taking an even more serious hit than their European counterparts. Is this the end of an era?


It is true that the Europeans are one step ahead of the Americans at the moment. Their models are better suited to the oil crisis. American cars may be cheaper, but they are larger and more basic. V8 engines such as the ones used in the US do not exist in France. Conversely, diesel engines are absent from the US. This is a kind of revenge for the Europeans. Soaring oil prices are proving them right. European models average 6 litres per 100km, vs. 12 litres for US cars.


The Americans are coming to terms with the fact that their models do not suit the economic environment any more. They have been seeing it for three years, but admitted it only in the past six months. Ford is in the process of converting its pick-up truck factories to European models. This is a culture shock for them.

Date created : 2008-07-25