Tuesday, 20 March 2012

Micro Level Trends – European Auto Stocks – German “Growth Picks” Contrast Gallic “Value Picks”.

As European economic disarray appears to slowly subside (even in the face of Greek & Spanish intransigence) observers of European auto stocks will have noted the major divergence that has appeared between the well positioned premium biased German producers, and the flailing mainstream French and Italian manufacturers.

[NB American owned GM Europe and Ford of Europe, dragging down their respective homeland good news stories].

The broad picture forming is that auto-sector equities investors presently sit within what could be described as "Act 2 of 3".

Having witnessed successful corporations both feed and become swept up by the voracious bull market that has run since October 2011, the investment community now looks to those by-passed and unloved entities which themselves are in the doldrums and look ripe for orchestrated funding and strategic nurturing.

The following provides outline of the forces that have, and continue, to support the German auto industry – which itself assists massively in financially the re-floating the EU ambition - whilst also highlighting the major market challenges yet investment opportunities for French and Italian companies at VM, Niche Manufacturer and Supply Chain Level.

The Present Picture -

North America shows the signs of maintaining a slow tentative structural recovery. China has confidently managed its passage through a successful 'soft-landing' via internally directed fiscal & monetary measures, so arguably demonstrating its ability regards self-containment and self-sufficiency. Japan continues to deploy a strong Yen (relative to the international FX basket) to serve internal infrastructure re-build programmes and overseas M&A ambitions. Brazil begins what appears a pseudo-protectionist stance over its currency and its prime manufacturing base so as to stabilise its own Mercosur fortunes given its global exportation slowdown. The Middle-East experiences the social and political pains of a new pro-Arabic yet 'centralist' transition period which seeks to economically integrate the vast MENA region so as to provide “regional balance” vis a vis Western, Latin, American, Asian and Chinese power-houses.

Europe -

Throughout this very unsettling period of new-era globalisation, European leaders recognised the need to band together to overcome the resulting frictions from the regional sovereign debt crisis; recognising that a truly 'broken Europe' would relegate the majority of EU members into a 21st century 'dark age'. The channelling of largely German liquidity through ESFS & ESFM vehicles has undoubtedly helped to quell intra-national and markets' fears, whilst the long-haul recovery of Greece will ultimately set the re-structuring benchmark – in terms of depth and timetable - for the more reticent Spanish and Portugese.

To the possible wry delight of slightly shaken but mostly unstirred EM nations, the real consequence of the western originated 'global financial crisis' was most evidently seen in the US and across Europe; the former arguably through the turmoil whilst the EU remains effectively a 3-speed destination for investors.

The German Powerhouse -

The financial problems of the European debt crisis were effectively laid at the feet of German politicians, the Bundesbank, the EcB and critically the German populace; by way of its high productivity rate & personal savings levels. Whilst the political and central bankers were able to formulate 'loans for austerity measures' toward the 'PIIGS' countries, the real concern through 2009-11 was whether Germany itself would be over-burdened by its neighbours.

As a result of the disenchantment with all things Greek, Italian, Spanish, Portugese and Irish, the German consumer became increasingly patriotic regards personal expenditure. To such an extent that the domestic economy 'powered through' the fragile period, as seen by the sale of cars increasing by 9% in 2011; a marked contrast to all other contracting EU car markets.

This then has created a condition wherein Germany once again stands as continent's prime economic engine, with France in reality offering little assistance as it battles its own banking sector woes and confines itself for the most part to its own national economic agenda.

Thus, until the EU 'de-coupled' UK finds certain economic traction, Germany sits effectively alone as the sole bright light within the fractured EU region.

Yet it has provided the indigenous German trio of VW, BMW & Daimler (aswell as to a lesser degree Opel and Ford) with a very welcome, somewhat 'inelastic', demand floor.

Fractured Europe / Fractured World -

Thus, as described initially the physically separate continents and their associated indigenous trading blocs within the world are perhaps far more fractured today than at any time over the last two decades; Europe's own dis-unity serving to underline the 'new norm' that re-orientates corporate, political and social agendas.

The Corporate Challenge -

As a result the plethora of multi-national corporations – ranging from investment banks to foodstuff providers – have effectively de-centralised so as to better morph regional divisions and operations to better suit the specific micro-climate. Then more adeptly positioned to acutely manage a portfolio of enterprises that must best evolve within that exacting micro-climate yet within the corporate realm: ranging from the immediacy of locally sourced financing availability and its associated costs, to the far-horizon of 'visioneering' process of how the regional market will develop, all the while necessarily maintaining the cohesion standard operating practice, as delineated by HQ. So a very testing time for regional executives, whether those of GE in Asia or TATA in Europe, and perhaps more so for the Board of Directors who must maintain corporate integration whilst maximising regional opportunities and minimising regional risks.

Europe's Entrenched Auto Players -

Europe's mainstream VMs have, for the most part, long been participants in worldwide markets, though of course each with varying distant past and recent history success. However, many including PSA, Renault, FIAT and GME still have a legacy bias to their homeland and European markets, marques such as Citroen, Skoda, Dacia, Opel, Vauxhall and Lancia with respectively greater perceived social and industrial connection to the home market. Whilst they themselves were intrinsic to local positive economic history thus obtaining a once entrenched (ie captive) customer base of private, fleet or government sales, that grip has weakened as a result of de-regulation and open borders policy-making.

That story of gradually eroded market share only bucked by PSA's expansionary growth at Citroen (piggy-backing Peugeot's previous 30 year success story), and VW's and Renault's 'parenting' of Skoda and Dacia as the CEE states became meshed with Western Europe.

Incoming Japanese and latterly Korean 'imported' competition, plus the competitive pressure of intra-regional sales, plus the EU's own enlargement created the impetus for necessary for yesteryear structural change, winners and losers diverging: PSA moving out of Renault's shadow to become the EU's second largest producer and Dacia re-established as a pan-regional and export oriented brand, whilst Lancia – like America's old premium brands - struggled to recapture past glory.

Whilst French and Italian producers have long recognised the EU market threat posed by new entrants, they have been largely impotent to tackle the threat by themselves broaching new high potential markets; Renault's American history with AMC an example, as was FIAT's own previous US market efforts; whilst even Audi retracted for many years. Similarly efforts in China and India have been lacklustre compared to the in-roads made by VW, GM, Ford, Toyota, Suzuki etc. Instead it seems that international expansion will continue to be limited to S.America and the MENA region, so almost destined to re-play the experiences of previous decades. Hence Marchionne's daring ploy with Chrysler to break the cycle.

This is not to say that PSA, Renault and FIAT cannot continue to nurture the broad growth opportunities in Brazil and Argentina, even with the former's monumental sector slow-down from its previous fast - indeed over-paced – growth. Simply that the expected renewed growth in North Africa and Near East will require far greater effort and patience to extract new 'national car' and auto-assembly deals (such as that seen previously with Iran's Khodro and the large Tangier's facility) because of greater competitive interest from VW Group (orientating SEAT's model naming toward the Arabic-Moorish), China's various state affiliated car companies seeking price-led export markets and India's TATA, Maruti and Mahindra seeking foreign growth.

Adjusting to the 'New Norm' -

However, those previous periods of adjustment may appear mild compared to the shock of the financial crisis, the reactionary surgical measures immediately required, and the ongoing rounds of surgeory and sector rehabilitation still needed.

Between 2007 and 2010 car sales fell from a record high of 15.5m to the low of 13.2m units, a low not seen since 1997. Governmental 'liquidity pump-priming' certainly saved Renault & PSA (receiving E2bn each), aswell as FIAT, and to a lesser extent assisting the German trio also. This financing initiative together with VMs own rapid cost-cutting and efficiency-seeking efforts and an improvement in general credit conditions for producers and buyers through 2009-11, together helped to stave off what would have been a socially disastrous auto-sector collapse.

Vitally important is the fact that over 15.1m car units were manufactured inside the EU in 2010, indicating a very simplistic 1.7m unit regional over-capacity.

Any argument that import levels (worth E22bn in 2010) adds further 'burden' to such over-capacity is countered by recognising that EU exports (worth E76.5bn) provide a wide trade surplus. However, imports are primarily mainstream vehicles and so can be argued as 'value destructive' to certain key segments in which 'national champions' operate. Whilst a high percentage of exported vehicles are typically in the premium segment where 'national champions' do not operate and so cannot benefit.

This additionally highlights the divergent fortunes of Europe's automotive players.

Slow But Powerful 'Creative Destruction' -

An argument can be posited that a far greater level of 'creative destruction' immediately following the financial crisis (engendered by less state interventionism) would actually have better served the sector in the long run.

However, this viewpoint may be cited as essentially “academic”. Since many of the intermediate private equity entities which notionally could have 'hoovered-up' liquidated assets were unable to access sufficient finance to do so; themselves in danger aversion and capital repair modes. Furthermore, many large auto-sector focused PE entities were already extremely busy executing 'turnarounds' at American and Canadian Tier 1 & 2 suppliers, exploring the bones of Chrysler and assessing new pseudo 'ground floor' investment in the GM re-listing.

It is then perhaps expedient to consider the PE community's attitude toward auto-sector restructures within the US and across Europe as respectively 'speedy' versus 'slow'.

Wall Street's Lehman Brother's 'moment' and the Sovereign Debt Crisis whilst inter-connected played out over slightly separate successive time-frames, and thus arguably allow for those tranches of America's enhanced liquidity, along with European Stability liquidity, to be invested into EU assets. Europe to see simultaneously merged FDI and 'self-help' funding, the former rationally directed at EU target companies and facilities where the business case (ideally US-EU synergistic) convinces.

The United States of Europe -

This structural difference an important distinction between the regions.

The American ability for a 'pre-pack' Chapter 11 full-scale restructuring of GM and Chrysler through a singular national legal framework, an amenable New York court system, and critically an 'on-board' UAW & general public; sits in stark contrast with the web of corporate, legal and social complexity that exists within Europe.

European leaders must wake-up to this American-European schism, and recognise the danger of slipping further behind the US, China and the increasingly strong economic blocs within Asia and Latin America.

However, in the meantime, the reality of intra-national European differences prevails, which in turn provides potential opportunities for non-European VMs and Supply Chain players to 'slice and dice' the body of the poorly performing members of the EU auto-sector. To obtain 'bolt-on' acquisitions which suit their own strategic ambitions across R&D, technical development, productivity, distribution and market-share.

[NB The 7% interest of GM in PSA might be viewed as part of this process of structural transformation].

In 2010 ACEA (the European Automobile Manufacturer's Association) noted in its yearly report that...”The automotive sector in Europe is highly competitive, supporting 12 million jobs, contributing significantly to economic prosperity. It supplies quality products worldwide and invests more in R&D than any other sector. Steps must be taken to ensure it emerges with strength from the economic downturn, ready to take advantage of market growth”.

Exactly which multi-national VM, which Tier 1 & Tier 2 companies, which distribution enterprises and which retailing groups come to finally benefit from the flux through FDI or Restructuring funding remains to be seen.

Conclusion -

VW AG, BMW AG and Daimler AG are deservedly flying high here and now, with indeed much to yet be gained as the macro-forces in Germany, North America, slowly the UK and eventually Europe provide what could be described as a domino earnings impetus. With of course China's own sustained growth also creating local and regional demand pull for these marques.

Yet the trickle-down of sizable ECB liquidity will undoubtedly eventually improve and re-energise national and regional EU market conditions. Simultaneously an offering a new generation of CO2 conscious vehicles from Peugeot SA, Renault SA and FIAT SpA should be able to excite still cost conscious but more spendthrift consumers, the VMs also theoretically able exercise historic near-reach export market opportunities.

Those valuation uplifts so desperately desired, themselves initially driven by a host of 'bottom-feeding' stock buyers, may possibly be attracted by adding greater 'pictorial detail' and 'aspirational clarity' to what for the most part are typically dry outlook summaries.

This era is obviously one of reflection and 'next move' strategising by company boards. And whilst highly confidential information cannot be leaked, it might prove useful to start relaying in broad terms the fundamentals of corporate intentions. Something that mimics a crystallised near-term ambition, as with VW's move on Porsche, with a far-horizon ideal – such as Toyota's legendary 100 year plan.

In the new age of 100 year (UK) government bonds, no doubt targeted at cash-rich corporations aswell as global pension funds, it makes sense for those auto-players presently in reduced circumstances to weave their substantive corporate intent into the minds of global investors.