By on October 18, 2009

No need. Picture courtesy journalism.berkeley.edu

A year ago, the 21st Century Business Herald reported that SAIC might buy GM and Dongfeng might buy Chrysler. TTAC was the first to break the story in the USA. As a result, our servers melted down, and we were accused of driving down GM’s and Chrysler’s stock price. Usually, buyout rumors drive prices up. But GM and Chrysler had only one way to go: Down. Months later, GM and Chrysler went bankrupt. They became a ward of the US government. Chrysler was given away to Fiat. GM was trimmed down to the barest minimum and is still owned by the US government. And the China story turned out to be a myth.

Following this, stories of Chinese car companies buying US car companies became a regular staple. Up to now, it is mostly talk and little action.

Several Chinese companies were rumored to be buying Ford’s Volvo. Geely was rumored for a long time to be a serious suitor for the Swedish brand. Things became quiet regarding Geely and Volvo recently, so quiet, that an American group known as the Crown consortium, led by Ford director Michael Dingman and former Ford and Chrysler executive Shamel Rushwin, were reported to be making a play for the Swedish marque., for less that the $2.5b Geely was supposedly ready to pay. According to the Wall Street Journal, SAIC was also interested in buying Volvo. Nothing materialized.

Whenever a Western car company was up for sale, a Chinese car company was supposedly interested. BAIC was reported to be a contender for Opel. BAIC’s offer was supposedly the best of all offers made for Opel. But nothing ever came of it. (BAIC and other Chinese companies may still have a chance to bid for Opel. The deal with Magna hasn’t been signed yet, is delayed again and again. Now, the EU Commission is making noises that the bidding process should be re-opened.)

Saab was rumored to be coveted by Geely and Dongfeng. Nothing materialized. Saab was finally bought by a small boutique car company in Sweden, Koenigsegg. Finally, a Chinese company came close to the deal: BAIC signed a letter of intent to become a non-controlling minority shareholder in the Koenigsegg-Saab venture. Even that deal is not closed yet. The European Investment Bank will decide next week on a €400m ($598m) loan request from Saab  that is key to the transaction. Sweden’s government must agree to guarantee the credit, and the European Commission must also rule that the loan doesn’t hinder competition by constituting improper state support. The EU Commission is very critical of government support, see the story above about Opel. TTAC’s man in Sweden says, the Saab-Koenigsegg-BAIC deal may be slipping away.

What’s left? Ah, yes, the old standby, Tengzhong and Hummer. Not necessarily an earthshaking deal as far as car companies go. Even that deal is not closed yet. In the beginning, China was up in arms about a Chinese company owning the manufacturer of a gas-guzzling gubernator-mobile. Slowly, they warmed up to the idea, and even its sharpest critics now recommend that the deal should be approved. The trouble is, China’s commerce ministry has not yet received an application. “We know no details about Tengzhong’s overseas purchase agreement,” said a ministry spokesman last week. No application, no approval.

Does the only real buying of foreign automotive assets by Chinese car companies come down to the purchase of a down-and-out British delivery van company, that hasn’t built any delivery vans for 10 months? Come to think of it, LDV doesn’t go to a car company, but an engineering firm, Eco Concepts. Supposedly with the backing of SAIC. Supposedly.

Why so much talk and so little action? Instead of invading foreign markets, the Chinese withdraw. China’s FAW just shelved plans to build a factory in Mexcio. Those damn Mexicans require any company with plans to sell its vehicles in the country to invest at least U.S. $100m in a plant to produce at least 50,000 units annually. FAW thought that’s way too ambitious, packed up, and left.

There are people who claim that the alleged bids are big PR maneuvers, aimed to get the names of Chinese car companies into the press. If that’s true, then it was successful. But somehow, I doubt that the Chinese, obsessed with saving face, have yet progressed to the “any news is good news” stage.

Others say, these rumors are the product of investment bankers who want to drum up interest for distressed car assets. There may be some truth in that. A Chinese suitor helps in shaking loose some government credits to keep the jobs at home and to save the intellectual property of cars nobody wants from moving to China.

Then there are others, yours truly included, that say that Chinese car companies better get with the program and start seriously buying while prices are low and sellers are getting increasingly desperate.

China has a booming car market, the biggest of the world. China will sell more than twelve million vehicles this year – at home. China’s car exports on the other hand, of which the world is dead afraid, are a joke: China exported a trifling 190,000 vehicles in the first seven months of this year, down 58 percent from 2008. Adding insult to ingrained rivalry, India out-exported China in the first half of 2009.

Let’s face it: The world isn’t necessarily clamoring to buy Chinese branded cars. Even in China, foreign brands such as Volkswagen or Buick are much more popular than homegrowns. Building a new car brand takes time and money, building a car brand in the saturated markets of the West takes a lot of time and a lot of money. Just ask Toyota or Hyundai how long it took them to gain respect and market share abroad. Buying an already established western brand while it is cheap or practically given away is a much more cost-efficient, time-saving, and politically expedient approach.

The other alternative is for the Chinese to focus on the two growth markets, namely China at home and possibly neighboring India. There is a lot to be said for this strategy. After all, these markets are growing, while the Western markets are saturated and contracting. Why should China focus on Europe or America in a time when China buys nearly twice as many GM’s than the Americans?

That reminds me of when I was working for Volkswagen. There was a time when Volkswagen’s sales in the USA were at an all-time low, their customer satisfaction ratings were at the bottom of the scale. Volkswagen seriously contemplated exiting the US market and to focus on growth markets. Volkswagen did not retreat. Why? They knew that if they can’t compete in the world’s most demanding and most complicated car market, they eventually will not be able to compete in the world. They knew that to keep up with the demands for safety, emissions and driver comfort, they needed to be competitive in the USA. They stayed. Volkswagen still doesn’t play a big role in the USA. But Volkswagen grew to be the second largest car company in the world.

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32 Comments on “Editorial: Where’s The Yellow Peril?...”


  • avatar
    volvo

    “Just ask Toyota or Hyundai how long it took them to gain respect and market share abroad”

    I would guess about 25 years. For China that is thought of as one generation and for the US as 100 quarterly reports. Therein lies the problem for the US.

  • avatar
    kaleun

    it will take Hyundai even longer. Add one car generation to improve their resale value. It takes 10 years of good cars (seeing them driving 100,000s of miles without tranny problems etc.) before the used car prices increase.
    Today Hyundai builds nice new cars. But even the ones from 5 years ago show up with tons of issues. Who guarantees that the current models won’t have issues in 5 years? Especially sine Hyundai doesn’t extend the warranty to 2nd owners?
    I can sell a used Honda for a high price, because 15 year old Hondas with 200,000 miles are driving around and run with very little repair. Not so for Hyundai… only time will tell.

    The same will apply to Chinese cars. Maybe they are smarter than Hyundai and take less than 25 years to improve their product (and if it is by stealing knowledge). But they will need the same time to increase the perceived resale value.

    Whne Hyundai entered the market in Germany many years ago, no dealer even wanted to take them as a trade in… not at any low price. Only hyundai dealers would even consider trading in a Hyundai to sell you anew one. Once you bought a Hyundai you were stuck with the brand because no one woudl buy it. Nowadays you can trade it in at VW, Opel and other dealers… however, you won’t get much. I wasn’t in the US when Hyundai entered the US market, but sure no one wanted to buy them used at that time.

  • avatar

    Is there a way TTAC can drive Ford’s price down so I can purchase another 10,000 shares for less than $1.50?

  • avatar
    Robert.Walter

    Bertel,

    I remember reading, as a student, a discarded copy of AutoNews or Wards, and seeing a quote from (I think) Dr. Karl Hahn saying exactly that … “if we can’t compete in the US, we can’t compete anywhere.”

    btw, VW’s concern in the ’80’s about remaining relevant in a competitive market (USA), was reflected later by DBAG when management there voiced concerns about remaining relevant in competitive market segments, as the successes of the new entries (Lexus, et al.) forced M-B to retreat up-market until the price-point of their cars was competing against other lifestyle choices (boats, 2nd homes, etc.) Conclusion there was if they couldn’t be competitive in all segments, they would eventually be competitive in few or none.

  • avatar
    CyCarConsulting

    The Chinese car industry will be no threat if they continue sending less than inferior quality goods to the U.S.
    The biggest nightmare right now being drywall, which will cost consumers here billions of dollars in repairs, since insurance companies just opted out of covering any of the mess.

  • avatar
    yankinwaoz

    Sounds like the sellers are pimping out the Chinese in order to scare other buyers (or governments) in to paying more to a dead brand.

    Isn’t that the exact same trick used by car salesmen? The ones who say to car shoppers “Nice car. I don’t think it will be here long because another couple was here an hour ago and want to buy it.”

    I know that trick is used in real estate all the time, despite being illegal.

  • avatar
    mpresley

    Volkswagen still doesn’t play a big role in the USA. But Volkswagen grew to be the second largest car company in the world.

    You know better than me, but my experience shows that VW can’t build enough cars for China. The B5 platform Passat is still built in luxo version; the B6 (current) Passat is sold next to the B5 as the Magotan; also luxed out. Jedi are ubiquitous in numerous models; and now the Jedi recently returned in the guise of the Sagitar in order to distinguish it from predecessors. Even the erstwhile Quantum appears to be the majority of taxis. In addition, every other car (I’m almost exaggerating) is an Audi, and Shenzhen has a Bentley dealer for the more upmarket. I don’t recall any Porsche’s, but maybe that too will change.

  • avatar
    Cicero

    Funny how when the current owner of most of the American car industry is a socialist-minded federal government, the idea of ownership by Chinese private companies doesn’t seem quite so ominous.

  • avatar
    Dimwit

    In trying to read between the lines it certainly looks like the Chinese corps can’t get government approval on anything outside their borders. Each deal dies on the vine. Since these companies are quasi governmental orgs, it’s weird.

  • avatar

    Dimwit: It doesn’t look like a lack of government approval. The Chinese government actually encouraged their car companies to acquire foreign assets in order to improve the dismal export numbers. Hasn’t happened. If there are no applications, as in the case of Tengzhong/Hummer,nothing can be approved.

    mpresley: There are lots of imported Porsches, the Cayman is especially popular if you are a General or captain of industry.

  • avatar
    Lorenzo

    Is there something about Chinese negotiating tactics, or lack thereof, that’s preventing agreements from being reached? In some of the negotiations I’ve read about, the Chinese seem unwilling to modify offers on the fly and use walking away as a tactic, expecting to be chased and persuaded to come back. That’s a lot like ugly girls trying to play hard to get.

    I just get the feeling that there’s a cultural block with the non-government Chinese businesses, at least the industrial ones, that prevents them from concluding realistic agreements with the West. If there’s any truth to that, then the Chinese government, which does have some expertise, should be doing more than just encouraging deals, they should be guiding their companies in the ways of Western dealmaking.

  • avatar

    Lorenzo: The Chinese are masters of negotiation. A skill honed in thousands of years. GM has studied them well and is employing Chinese tactics with suppliers and foreign governments. Chinese negotiation tactics need to be mastered. The “walking away” is part of the set-piece. Those who come running, lose. (But you can glance over your shoulder when you walk, to signal that you are willing to compromise.) Nah, a lack of negotiation skills is not the problem.

    From my experience here, it is a lack of understanding of brand power. Chinese are into brands bigtime, all foreign ones. They love brands more than a valley girl. But there is a lack of skills for brand building, and, most of all, a reluctance to invest seriously into brand building. How many Chinese brands are known and relevant in the world? Maybe Haier, a manufacturer of washing machines. Maybe Lenovo, on the coat tails of IBM. Pretty much it, no? A Chinese businessman recognizes the value of a brand when he sees the brand. But he usually has no idea of the amount of time and money and work that needs to be invested into a brand to make it successful.

  • avatar
    HarveyBirdman

    This past Saturday I bumped into a friend of mine who is the finance manager at the area’s only Hummer dealer. I asked her how she felt about the prospect of Hummer being acquired by Tengzhong, and to my surprise she had no problem with it at all. In fact, she seemed optimistic that the new owners would actually focus on the company and develop new products sooner, rather than neglecting the brand and leaving it to die on the vine. Then again, when the dealership is only averaging 5 sales per month, it really can’t get worse.

    Looking at this small bit of anecdotal evidence, it makes me wonder if a good number of the people trying to make a living off of GM would rather see things run by private Chinese companies than the government-owned shells of once great domestic automakers.

  • avatar
    PeteMoran

    It’s pretty simple; the companies that are worth anything aren’t for sale. Toyota, VWG, BMW, Mercedes etc.

  • avatar
    d002

    Well the Chinese bought out Rover TWICE.

    No problem there.

    Perhaps they just don’t want American cars.

  • avatar

    d002: They love American cars. This year, GM sold nearly twice as many cars in China than in the U.S. of A.

    For unfathomable reasons, Buick is a hot seller.

    This is about export. For export purposes, a small brand such as Volvo or Saab would be just fine.

  • avatar
    Kristjan Ambroz

    While I definitely hear the reasoning for acquiring a foreign brand as an avenue into exports, I’d be worried about such a move if I was them as well – big international conglomerates, who (arguably) understand the Western markets, or who at the very least have been playing there for a considerable time, have some understanding of branding, technology, etc. have consistently failed to make these brands a success. So you have to make some pretty brave assumptions about own skills if you think that throwing a couple of juan at the problem will suddenly solve all issues. And I understand that both GM and Ford were perhaps not the ‘right’ owners for Saab, Volvo, Jaguar, LR but BMW and MB, both of which should have the branding thing figured out pretty well managed pretty badly with their adventures.

    So why should one, as a CEO of a Chinese car manufacturer, automatically assume that it is a good idea to buy those brands up? They may be cheap but assets are often cheap for a very good reason ;)

  • avatar

    Kristjan:

    I guess you’ve had to live here for a while to understand why it makes sense.

    Most of the bestselling cars in China are made by the joint ventures. Those cars carry foreign brand names, have foreign technology, are made according to foreign standards, look and drive like their foreign counterparts. State of the art automobiles. But they cannot be exported, the joint venture contract forbids this.

    Then there are the homegrowns, sometimes literally made by companies who previously made (or still make) refrigerators. Those can be exported. Their crash videos are on Youtube. Their only markets are third world countries, and even those casn’t afford them anymore.

    Does it make sense now to acquire a brand of one of these state of the art cars, which are made in China anyway, to unlock their export potential?

    Japan and Germany export about half of the cars they make. It must irk China to no end that they make 12 million cars, but export next to none. Isn’t China supposed to be the export powerhouse?

  • avatar
    Kristjan Ambroz

    Bertel,

    don’t get me wrong, I am fully on board with your reasoning. But to be honest of all that has been on offer so far, the only really interesting company in my opinion is Opel. While Lopez made sure their reputation went down the drain and some subsequent products did not help much, either, they do have a quite competitive line-up right now and the development capabilities to continue in a similar manner. Saab and Volvo on the other hand are somewhat damaged goods and on the way down, as opposed to up for Opel. But then again, my opinion only and not having been involved from the inside in either one of the two for a while, reality might be better than my perception. ;)

  • avatar
    PeteMoran

    It must irk China to no end that they make 12 million cars, but export next to none. Isn’t China supposed to be the export powerhouse?

    Does China expect that the rest-of-the-world should just accept they know how to do it right-away? Will they stomp their feet and demand that the rest of the car purchasing world recognise them as “already” equal?

    It will be a generation at least before many are prepared to risk a Chinese car. Just as the Japanese and Koreans had to “suffer” beforehand.

  • avatar
    YZS

    They aren’t 12 year olds, yes, they are irked, but that doesn’t mean they are going to stomp their feet and demand stupid crap that they know is not going to happen.

    What they are doing is looking internally at their automotive industry and trying to figure out how to do it, but just as importantly, whether it is value added for them to do it at this time. They are cost conscience and don’t want to waste money pursuing something they do not fully understand. And because of the recent economic calamities, it’s much more difficult for western “experts” to have any influence on the Chinese anymore. Plus, they don’t really need the western markets, they can easily stay in China and triple in size.

    They got screwed in deals before and they know the global automotive industry isn’t easy to crack. They are looking for ways to disrupt the market, mainly by introducing new technology. But their basics (such as reliability and safety) just aren’t up to snuff. They have to realize that, but to what extent, I don’t know. Business people from China, especially successful ones, have a very strong and independent world view and just can’t seem to fathom that other people have different standards, ideas….laws. So I see that as the first major stumbling block, inability to take professional advice of local experts. Once they figure that out, then it’s all mechanics (yes, it’s really simplifying it, but I’m trying not to write a novel here), they will invest money into their brands, and build them up slowly, and we are looking at Japan Inc II, not just in the auto industry, but in just about every industry. It will be massively pervasive, and I don’t think we will be ready to deal with it.

  • avatar
    ASISEEIT

    It’s just a matter of time before China gets its act together and becomes a huge exporter of cars and trucks! There’s no doubt they have the revenue. This will be the final nail to the U.S. auto industry. G.M’s Wagoner knew this and that is why he drove G.M. into the ground and built all new plants in 3rd world countries. America cannot compete on any level when competing with countries like China, India, Pakistan, and Mexico. A doctorate degreed Indian in any subject for $10,000.00 a year! Chinese laborer for $10.00 a month!! America isn’t producing new jobs and the trickle affect now trickles out of the U.S. and the meager jobs left here are performed by illegal aliens who are paid under the table and 50% of their wages are then sent back to their country of origin. Beautiful!!!

  • avatar
    William C Montgomery

    Bertel,

    As always, great analysis. I especially love your last paragraph.

    Since you are TTAC’s resident China business expert, could I get your opinion on the tainted Chinese drywall (not Great Wall) flap? If you are unfamiliar with this, since 2004 half a billion pounds of Chinese drywall has been imported and used in the construction of 60,000 homes in the U.S. It is now believed that the drywall contains volatile sulfur compounds, not normally used in sheetrock manufacture, that are emitting noxious rotten-egg odors, “corroding copper pipes, destroying TVs and air conditioners, and blackening jewelry and silverware.” Some homeowners are even claiming that the fumes are making them sick.

    This sounds like an open and shut product liability case, but it’s not because, according to the CBS News and the Associated Press, “The homeowners have little recourse since neither the Chinese manufacturers nor the Chinese government are likely to respond to any lawsuits or reimburse them for the defective drywall.” As a result, homeowners are futilely trying to get their insurance companies to cover the cost of remediation (of course, home insurance isn’t intended to cover building material defect).

    As an unapologetic free market and free trade guy, this makes me nervous about Chinese automobile imports. Buying a cheap pair of Chinese made sox from Wal-Mart is one thing, but buying something as complex and potentially deadly as a car is quite another. What is your take?

  • avatar
    William C Montgomery

    Insurers: Chinese Drywall? Go Away

  • avatar
    threeer

    Okay, this may come off as totally “American Protectionist” stuff, but I’m going to say it anyway. I truly hope that the Chinese do NOT make huge inroads here in the US. I’m slowly tiring of hearing all of the talk of the Chinese basically already owning us (they hold the largest portion of our foreign debt). I’d rather us pull all of our Armed Forces out of Iraq and Afghanistan (full confession here… I work on behalf of the United States Army) and spend THAT money on paying the Chinese off. We, as a nation, should not be beholden to any country. Period. That it’s even a consideration that the Chinese would one day rule the automotive landscape here in the States makes my stomach churn..so much so that if I was to be buying a new car, I’d be seriously considering an American nameplate (I already own a used Ford Fusion). But for the Americans to be competitive again will most likely take at least as long as it would take the Chinese to perhaps become competitive here in the States to begin with. I guess we need a revolution here in America, just not sure we (collectively as a nation) have the guts to stand up, make the changes we all know we need to make, and regain our footing.

    Sigh…rant off…

  • avatar
    fincar1

    Thanks for the links on drywall. I was at a loss to understand why something as heavy and as easy to make as drywall would be imported from China in the first place. Now I find out that this importation is simply another unintended consequence of the housing boom and bust cycle.

  • avatar
    joeaverage

    threer – you have your head on straight. I agree.

    The national debt and any contributing causes ought to be very high on the to-do list. I worried about this too when the last Prez decided to throw us into two wars – especially when the Soviets showed us a preview of Afghanistan and Iran showed us a preview of the Iraqi problem.

    I watched a BBC or CBC special on the history of the Arab conflicts over the past 20 years recently. EVERY American ought to know more than our lousy mainstream press offers us. Almost no background information in the stuff that we get from the news channels and 20 min evening news (after commercials). Look it up on the web. It’s out there. It’s easy to see how everything was connected and what roles the “bad guys” have had in the recent history.

    If there are problems like Bin Laden and Hussein then quietly go in with small teams of specialists and blow their heads off.

    We would have been better off quietly dealing with the aftermath of 9/11 like the Israeli secret service does their problems. Sneak around and assassinate the bad guys.

    Now I worry about where the current Prez is going to come up with the funds for his healthcare reforms and why the mainstream press isn’t addressing the question of inflation. I support Obama for the most part but I fear another spending frenzy just like the previous Prez.

    As for the China/India question – we need to get ourselves fixed up in this country. Get our personal finances and priorities in order. Once the competition comes to sell their wares here in America we won’t have a chance to correct anything. Change will come swiftly. I figure to some sectors of our economy it will look like a recession as they are swept away. To other parts of the economy it will look like a boom time (retailers perhaps) but in the end there will be fewer jobs in America that a person can make a living at.

    Personally b/c of the direction our last two presidents have gone with their spending, the coming wave of Asian development and what that means to the cost of raw materials as we compete with them – my family is concentrating on getting our mortgage paid off and some savings in the back. It’ll take us 5 years+ to get it done but we’ll be more secure in the long run.

    If I’m right then good for us. If I get it wrong I’ll have some spare income to spend on whatever we like. We also hope to help our sons buy a starter house each and go through college.

    All this with two modest professional level incomes…

  • avatar

    I haven’t followed the drywall disaster, and I’m not a lawyer. Usually, it is the importer who is liable. The importer then can sue the manufacturer – if he has proper contracts. He can completely avoid the Chinese court system by specifying binding arbitration. Very common. Each of my contracts specifies binding arbitration – in Hong Kong, according to HK law.

    My contracts always carry iron-clad “no toxic substances” clauses. Also, in my business, we test the stuff during production and before the container closes – not afterwards. These cases usually are caused by faulty QA, bad or no contracts and negotiating for price only.

  • avatar
    blowfish

    For unfathomable reasons, Buick is a hot seller.

    Buick could had been roaming around the Middle Kingdom since beginning of times. Atleast just before the WWII they were heavily roaming the streets of Shanghai. Very much a sign of Arrived.

    Growing up in Hong Kong, even the movies do refer to owning a Buick as being arrived, it may even out shadowed Cadillacs too.

    Pontiacs & Chebbys were pretty popular in HK during the 50-60’s. When 70 came Olsmobile were brought in, and so a few Firebird.

    Contirental barge circa the one JKF rode in, were kind of common then. And by Mk III came out it didnt wasted too much time to arrive either.

  • avatar
    Geotpf

    Personally, I would think the builder should end up being responsible for the bad drywall. If Ford builds a car with faulty cruise control switches made by Texas Instruments that catch on fire, who do you sue, Ford or Texas Instruments? (Well, probably both, but if Texas Instruments was bankrupt or otherwise unsueable, Ford alone would do.)

  • avatar
    dolorean23

    The other alternative is for the Chinese to focus on the two growth markets, namely China at home and possibly neighboring India.

    China will never import cars from Tata or any other Indian company. Both countries are squarely at odds with each other over control of the Pacific rim economies. China has always had an inferiority complex in foreign relations and will continue to do business with the US and NAFTA to keep India out. Similiarly, India looks West to the former British colonies, Europe, and to Britain itself to fund its economic powerhouse against the Chinese.

    It doesn’t seem that long ago when it seemed that everyone in America was up in arms about losing so much ground to the invading Japanese product market. Its worked out so well that most don’t even think of Toyota as being a foreign brand any more. What’s more is the Japanese and Koreans seem defiantly positioning themselves to deny the Chinese access to the lucritive American market share.

    re: blowfish. The Chinese love the Buick for the same reason some Americans do. Their roads aren’t exactly the best and nothing soaks up road pitting like a softly sprung, living room couch LaSabre. Also, Buicks are mechanically sound in comparisson to what China produces itself and are highly efficient cruisers to boot.

  • avatar
    wsn

    Regarding drywall, I doubt any sane home owner would go out of their way to buy drywall from China and ship it here. Chances are, they bought the drywall/house will that drywall from an American company. So, don’t blame China for that.

    Just as Geotpf said, sue the company/person that sold the stuff to you. Exactly who sold it to him, is not your concern.

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