Auto Industry Stock Outlook - Feb 2013 - Zacks Analyst Interviews

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The auto industry is highly concentrated. The top 10 global automakers account for roughly 80% of the worldwide production and nearly 90% of total vehicles sold in the U.S.

In January 2013, General Motors Company ( GM ) led with an 18.7% market share in the U.S., followed by Ford Motor Co. ( F ) with a 15.9% market share, Toyota Motors Corp. ( TM ) with a 15.1% market share, Chrysler-Fiat with a 11.3% market share, and Honda Motor Co. ( HMC ) and Nissan Motor Co. ( NSANY ) at the last spots with 9.0% and 7.8% market shares, respectively.

Toyota recaptured the sales crown from General Motors by selling 9.75 million vehicles globally in 2012, which exceeded GM's sales of 9.29 million vehicles. Germany 's Volkswagen AG ( VLKAY ) came third with sales of 9.07 million vehicles for the year. Toyota's victory can be attributed to its impressive product lineups and marketing initiatives.

Toyota lost its No.1 position to GM in 2011 after gaining the title from GM in 2008. The loss of crown was driven by declining reputation due to a series of safety recalls as well as negative impact from natural disasters in Japan and Thailand in 2011. However, the automaker had vowed to regain the top position by increasing its dependence on the non-U.S. markets, especially the high growth emerging markets.

OPPORTUNITIES

To remain competitive, the automakers will need to design vehicles that will cater to consumers in both mature and emerging markets while manufacturing them at low-cost using the most advanced technology.

For example, Ford has undertaken "One Manufacturing" strategy, which aims at producing multiple models from plants across the world in order to save production costs and fast adaptation to changes in consumer tastes. The automaker anticipates producing 4.5 models at each of its plants by 2015, up from 3.6 models currently.

Further, the automakers are concentrating on offering more optional features (which will save money on gas) even on the small and less gas-guzzler vehicles in order to attract buyers. The sale of optional features is helping them offset lower profit margins for small cars relative to large trucks.

The automakers continue to shift their production facilities from high-cost regions such as North America and the European Union to lower-cost regions such as China, India and South America. According to a study by CSM Worldwide, China and South America together are projected to represent more than 50% of growth in global light vehicle production in the auto industry from 2008 to 2015.

The role of governments is highly significant. Governments in all major countries have become active auto industry players. Their energy and environmental policies will be strongly responsible in molding the auto industry in the coming years.

In late 2011, 13 major automakers, including Ford, GM, Chrysler, BMW, Honda, Hyundai ( HYMLF ), Jaguar/Land Rover, Kia, Mazda, Mitsubishi, Nissan, Toyota and Volvo, have signed letters of commitment with the U.S. Government to upgrade the fuel economy standard of cars and light-duty trucks to 54.5 miles per gallon (mpg) by 2025.

The new standard is more than double the Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) standard of 24.1 mpg. It is expected to save 12 billion barrels of oil and curtail oil consumption by 2.2 million barrels per day, which accounts for half of the oil imported by the U.S. from OPEC countries on a daily basis.

The new standard also aimed at reducing carbon pollution to 163 grams per mile of CO2. With this, more than 6 billion metric tons of greenhouse gas will be curbed over the time span of the program, which accounts for more than the amount of carbon dioxide emitted by the U.S. in 2010.

Pent-Up Demand and U.S. Market Recovery

Strong pent-up demand due to aging vehicles on the U.S. roads along with falling unemployment rate have been the key factors in driving the auto sales in the U.S. Average age of vehicles on U.S. roads increased to 11.3 years in January 2013 from 10.8 years in 2012. Banks were also friendlier as they offered greater access to loans with lower interest rates.

Auto sales in the U.S. grew 13.4% to the five-year high of 14.5 million vehicles in 2012 including a 9% rise to 1.4 million in December last year. Further, in January 2013, auto sales rose 14.2% to 1.04 million vehicles that translate into a seasonally adjusted annual rate (SAAR) of 15.3 million units for the year, up about 1 million units from 2012.

GM expects a 7% rise in industry sales in 2013. Meanwhile, Ford predicted an 8% gain in the year, which reflects more than threefold rise compared with the overall economic growth of 2%-2.5% forecasted by the automaker.

Asia Promises High Growth

The Asian countries, especially China and India, are expected to account for 40% of growth in the auto industry over the next five to seven years being the rapidly growing economies. According to Global Insight -- a U.S. based provider of economic and financial information -- 14.7% of growth is expected to come from India and 8.3% from China by 2013.

Ford anticipates global sales to expand by 50% to 8 million vehicles by 2015 given the potential growth in Asia, mainly China and India; and rising demand for small cars. The automaker anticipates small cars to account for 55% of the total sales by 2020 compared with 48% presently. One third of the small car sales are expected to come from Asia.

The Chinese automakers have been struggling hard to enhance their global profile by upgrading their technology to meet international standards. Meanwhile, Indian automakers are also sallying into international markets by introducing their innovative products that could meet consumers demand abroad.

In late 2012, Ford announced plans to boost exports of its engine production from India by shipping them for the first time to Europe. Currently, the automaker exports 40% of its Indian-made engines and 25% of its Indian-made cars to 35 countries. The company's plan to rev up Indian exports is in line with its capacity expansion programs in the country. The company expects to manufacture 450,000 cars and 600,000 engines in India by 2015.

Ford already pumped in $2 billion to build manufacturing facilities in India. However, it is still lagging behind Hyundai Motor and Maruti Suzuki India Ltd, which occupy the lion's share in the Indian car market.

Auto sales in China had grown at a double-digit pace since 1999, except in 2008 when the global economic crisis crept in. In 2009, China overtook the U.S. as the biggest auto market in the world by sales volumes when the Beijing government introduced a stimulus package, including tax incentives for small cars. China accounted for a third of light vehicle sales growth in the last five years.

However, the incentives were scrapped in 2011 and the Beijing government imposed quotas on new car registrations in order to control the traffic congestions. In 2012, sales in China grew 4.3% to 19.3 million units, including a 7.1% gain in December to 1.8 million units. Despite being higher than the 2011-level of 2.5%, sales growth is lower than the 8% growth projected by China Association of Automobile Manufacturers (CAAM) as well as the double-digit growth in 2009 and 2010.

The lower-than-expected growth was attributable to a sluggish economy, rising fuel costs, weak Japanese automakers sales owing to a conflict between Beijing and Tokyo over a group of uninhabited islands in the East China and drastic steps take by few major cities to curb traffic congestion and emission level.

Auto sales in the country are expected to improve if the government renews some of its policy incentives that helped the country overtake the U.S. as the biggest auto market. It is rumored that the government would soon resume paying subsidies to rural consumers who are willing to trade in old vehicles for new and fuel-efficient vehicles.

According to CAAM, auto sales in China are expected to rise 7% to more than 20 million vehicles in 2013, led by strong demand for passenger vehicles and economic recovery. The association believes SUVs will remain the fastest-growing segment in the year while commercial vehicles will record a moderate gain in sales.

WEAKNESSES

Although automakers continue to focus on shifting their production facilities to new regions driven by cost and demand factors, developing the supplier networks remains one of the greatest challenges faced by them. Existing suppliers to automakers often lack the financial strength to expand capacity in new markets. On the other hand, auto parts suppliers are sensitive to technology transfers to local third parties, which can give rise to low-cost competitors.

Since 1999, more than 20 of the largest global auto parts suppliers have filed for bankruptcy. The financial condition of the majority of auto market suppliers continues to deteriorate, resulting from a historically weak demand and high dependence on automakers.

Thus, despite the government's sizable investment in the industry, it is likely that there will be auto parts suppliers who are unable to restart operations due to a lack of sufficient working capital even as automakers start production. According to the Original Equipment Suppliers Association, 12% of the auto industry suppliers do not have sufficient working capital to support a 10%-25% expansion in production.

High dependence on automakers makes the auto market suppliers vulnerable to several maladies, primarily pricing pressure and production cuts. Pricing pressure from automakers constricts parts suppliers' margins. On the other hand, production cuts by automakers driven by frequent market adjustments negatively affect their operations.

Some of the auto industry suppliers who have a high reliance on a few automakers such as General Motors, Ford, Chrysler and Volkswagen include American Axle and Manufacturing ( AXL ), Meritor Inc. ( MTOR ), Goodyear Tire and Rubber Co. ( GT ), Magna International ( MGA ), Superior Industries ( SUP ), Tenneco Inc. ( TEN ) and TRW Automotive ( TRW ).

Future of Green Cars Looks Bleak

Rising fuel prices and global warming have turned attention to the auto industry that either rely less on traditional fossil fuels or use cheaper renewable sources of energy. Thus, "green" alternatives such as fuel-efficient electric vehicles (EVs) and hybrid vehicles will attract consumers in the affluent countries while flex-fuels such as ethanol and natural gas will be highly demanded in the emerging auto markets due to their suitability with the local climate and resource base.

Despite the U.S. Government's continued effort to promote plug-in-hybrids or EVs, the future of green cars looks bleak, at least in the near future.

Globally, the hybrid market is ruled by Toyota (which includes the highly acclaimed Prius) and Honda (includes Civic and Insight hybrids). Meanwhile, other automakers such as Ford, General Motors and Nissan are also aggressively pursuing a plan to push hybrid sales. Some of the well-recognized "green" cars include the Ford Focus, GM Volt, Nissan Leaf and Daimler AG's ( DDAIF ) smart USA micro EV. U.S. is the largest hybrid car market in the world with sales accounting for 60%-70% of global hybrid sales.

Many leading automakers took steps in the last one and half years to push green car technology. In late 2011, Ford and Toyota have signed a memorandum of understanding on the equal product development collaboration for developing a gas-electric hybrid engine for pickup trucks and sports utility vehicles (SUVs), which is expected to be marketed by the end of this decade.

In August 2012, Ford revealed its plan to invest $135 million to develop key components, including advanced battery systems, for its next-generation hybrid-electric vehicles. The automaker is looking forward to double its battery-testing capabilities to 160 individual battery-test channels by 2013. Ford aims to reduce cost of its current hybrid system by 30% compared with its previous-generation system. It also plans to triple production capacity of electrified vehicles by 2013.

GM also plans to manufacture a luxury electric car dubbed ELR based on the technology used in its Volt plug-in hybrid for its Cadillac brand as a part of its long-term goal to become a leader in the fuel-efficient vehicles market. The automaker intends to manufacture 500,000 vehicles per annum by 2017 that will include some from of electric technology.

The vehicles would mainly include plug-in hybrids such as Chevrolet Volt, apart from pure electric vehicles such as Chevrolet Spark EV that will go on sale in 2013. The company also plans to push its eAssist system technology in its new vehicles. The eAssist system boosts fuel efficiency by 25% in gasoline-powered vehicles.

However, the industry has witnessed some notable adverse developments in the drive for green technology. In January 2013, the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) backed off President Barack Obama's stated goal of putting 1 million electric cars on the road by 2015 due to weaker than expected demand for plug-ins/EVs. According to Hybridcars.com, plug-in/EV sales constituted a meager 3.3% of the overall sales in the U.S. in 2012.

The weak demand for plug-ins/EVs has led some lithium-ion battery makers file for bankruptcy protection in 2012. They include MA-based A123 Systems Inc. and NY-based EnerDel, despite both being DOE grant recipients (A123 - $249.1 million; EnerDel - $118.5 million). It also led another DOE grant recipient (in fact, the third largest with $161.0 million), Dow Kokam, to be written down by chemical behemoth Dow Chemical ( DOW ), who jointly operated the entity with TK Advanced Battery LLC since 2009.

Safety Recalls

Since November 2009, Toyota recalled about 20 million vehicles globally, surpassing all other automakers. Few months back, the automaker had announced a major worldwide recall of 7.43 million vehicles that included more than a dozen models manufactured between 2005 and 2010. The recall was related to faulty power window switches in the vehicles that can cause fire because they did not have grease applied properly during production.

In 2012, the Transportation Department of U.S. slapped a fine of $17.35 million on Toyota due to late response regarding a defect in its vehicles to safety regulators as well as late recall of those vehicles. According to the department, it was the maximum allowable fine under the law for not initiating a recall in a timely manner. The latest fine adds to $48.4 million imposed by the U.S. government on the company in 2010 due to late recall of millions of defective vehicles.

Toyota would also need to pay $1.1 billion to settle a class-action lawsuit related to complaints of unintended acceleration in its vehicles. According to a plaintiff lawyer, the settlement is one of the largest in a lawsuit in the history of automotive industry. The lawsuit blamed Toyota's defective electronic throttle-control system rather than floor mats and sticky accelerator pedals for unintended acceleration, resulting in a crash. The settlement would pacify 16 million owners of Toyota, Lexus and Scion of model years 1998 to 2010.

In the spate of recalls following Toyota's, other automakers' recalls also came into the limelight. They include Chrysler, Ford, GM, Honda and Nissan. Among them, GM recalled most frequently.

Economic Crisis in Europe

The present Eurozone financial crisis has adversely affected the operations of many global automakers, especially GM and Ford, who have a significant exposure to the market. Car sales in Europe continued to be low owing to weak consumer confidence on the back of a weak economy triggered by the crisis.

According to the European Automobile Manufacturers' Association (ACEA), car sales in Europe reached its lowest level of 12.05 million units in 2012 since 1995, indicating a year-over-year decline of 8.2% due to the sagging demand for cars, as highly indebted banks were reluctant to finance new car purchases for customers. The decline was the steepest in the Eurozone, where car sales dipped 11.3% to roughly 9 million units, according to Reuters.

Car sales in December last year fell for the straight 15th month and at the fastest pace since October 2010. As many as 799,407 vehicles were sold during the month, falling short of the 2011-level by 16.3%.

Most of the major EU markets registered a double-digit fall in sales in December. Sales tumbled 14.6% in France, 16.4% in Germany, 22.5% in Italy and 23.0% in Spain. The U.K. was the only market that came up with sales growth of 3.7% in the month.

The U.S. automakers General Motors and Ford saw the steepest decline in sales among all the major automakers operating in the continent. Each of their sales shrank 27% in December. Meanwhile, Japanese automaker Honda sales slipped 6.7% in the month.

Among the European automakers, Volkswagen -- the biggest in Europe -- recorded a 15% decline in sales in December, driven by a 20% fall in sales of its namesake brand. Meanwhile, PSA Peugeot ( PEUGY ) and Renault each posted a 19% fall and Fiat SpA ( FIATY ) recorded a decrease of 18%.

Most major automakers in Europe are resorting to job cuts and plant closures, as it became no longer feasible for them to undertake full-fledged operations in the continent. Unemployment in the EU reached 26 million in November last year, while the unemployment rate increased to 10.7% in the same month from 10% in November 2011.

Among the U.S. automakers, Ford plans to shut vehicle and component plants in the U.K. and Belgium in the next two years while General Motors would suspend car production at its Bochum plant in Germany -- which employs 3,100 workers -- in 2016.

Among the European automakers, Renault plans to retrench 7,500 jobs in France by 2016 while Fiat and Peugeot have decided to eliminate 1,500 jobs each. Among the Japanese automakers, Honda announced plans to terminate 800 jobs at its South Marston plant near Swindon in southwest England in the second quarter of 2013.

AMER AXLE & MFG (AXL): Free Stock Analysis Report

DAIMLER AG (DDAIF): Free Stock Analysis Report

FORD MOTOR CO (F): Free Stock Analysis Report

FIAT SPA (FIATY): Free Stock Analysis Report

GENERAL MOTORS (GM): Free Stock Analysis Report

GOODYEAR TIRE (GT): Free Stock Analysis Report

HONDA MOTOR (HMC): Free Stock Analysis Report

MAGNA INTL CL A (MGA): Free Stock Analysis Report

MERITOR INC (MTOR): Free Stock Analysis Report

NISSAN ADR (NSANY): Free Stock Analysis Report

SUPERIOR INDS (SUP): Free Stock Analysis Report

TENNECO INC (TEN): Free Stock Analysis Report

TOYOTA MOTOR CP (TM): Free Stock Analysis Report

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The views and opinions expressed herein are the views and opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of The NASDAQ OMX Group, Inc.



This article appears in: Investing , Stocks

Referenced Stocks: AXL , CAFE , DDAIF , F , FIATY

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