Rough Road Ahead In Nippon. And The Winner Is?
Dark clouds over the land of the rising sun. Japan Inc is deeply involved in the atrophy formerly known as the U.S. auto market. Two of what was known as the “Big Five” are Japanese: Toyota and Honda. Over the past 10 years, Toyota and Honda had been steadily taking market share from Detroit. Now, Detroit is in trouble. So is Tokyo, due to its inordinate exposure to the US auto market. Klaxons are sounding in Nippon. “Although their situations are not as dire as those harrying the top three U.S. automakers, major Japanese carmakers are rushing to review their operations and revise business plans in the face of quickly deteriorating auto sales worldwide,” writes the Nikkei (sub) today.
A side effect of Toyota’s race to become the world’s largest auto maker was that ToMoCo built more factories than some other companies built cars. Toyota’s production capacity rose by half a million annually since 2000. In North America, Toyota used to earn half of its worldwide profits. The crash in the US hit them real hard. Sales in Japan and Europe have also been decreasing faster than the firm can adjust production levels. To not end up like the formerly Big 3, Toyota has to act fast. A committee headed by President Katsuaki Watanabe is busy cutting costs and improving earnings in a stormy environment. What about Honda?
Honda is in slightly better shape due to its subcompact vehicles, which are suddenly all the rage. However, Honda also had to make painful cuts in Japan, the U.S. and Europe. Nissan, teamed up with Renault, is looking at near-zero profits in the second half of 2008. A radical cash saving plan is in place.
“If market conditions continue to deteriorate, major Japanese automakers will have to take more drastic actions, such as carrying out bold production cuts,” writes the Nikkei, and possibly, horror of horror in the former land of lifetime employment, “laying off full-time employees.”
And who’s the winner? Volkswagen. Like a rally driver who was far behind, but who finally wins because all the other ones break down, Volkswagen currently enjoys the dumb luck of someone who had made a mess out of the American market. If you are a near nobody in America, a crash in America can’t hurt you much.
Volkswagen was the first company that really invested in China (actually, first place goes to AMC/Chrysler, but Chrysler botched it.) Volkswagen is the clear Number One in China. China is the world’s second largest auto market (when you don’t count Europe as a single market.) China is the only significant market that is still growing and that has nearly unlimited growth potential. Volkswagen had fumbled in China and nearly lost the ball to GM.
However, with grit and sheer luck, VW China recovered. GM no longer looks so good in China. To some Chinese, GM looks like a take-over target. So while the formerly Big Three go begging to Congress, and even countries like Poland, while Toyota, Honda, Nissan & Co. want to make their operation slimmer than their women, Volkswagen is the only big company that doesn’t guide down for 2008. A little savings here and there while it’s fashionable and politically sellable. But otherwise: Full steam ahead. Volkswagen über alles? Say it ain’t true.
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