The Financial Times, April 24, 2016
Carmakers are gearing up for a year of intense competition in China as the world’s largest auto market by sales faces both slowing growth and changing tastes in the form of electric cars and sports utility vehicles.
This time last year, global executives were bracing for a potential slowdown and a “new normal” of moderate sales growth to match a slowing mainland economy.
Fears became reality when the stock market rout last summer in China sent consumer sentiment into a nosedive. Sales dropped year on year from June to August, before a tax cut for small-engine vehicles in October propped up sales to finish 2015 with a growth rate of 4.7 per cent year-on-year.
After a bumpy run, global carmakers at the biennial Beijing International Automotive Exhibition, which opens on Monday, are keen to prove they are well positioned in China’s rapidly maturing market.
Shifting consumption patterns have made SUVs one of the country’s most promising growth segments, with sales surging by more than 50 per cent in the first quarter of 2016 compared with the same period last year, in contrast to sedan sales which declined 1 per cent.
That mirrors the growing popularity of gas-guzzling SUVs elsewhere in the world as fuel costs have followed the price of oil lower.
The shift has helped established a beachhead for local automakers, according to Bill Russo, a Shanghai-based consultant.
“For sedans, multinationals had the advantage but for utility vehicles seven out of the top 10 models are Chinese brands” thanks to their lower costs, he says. The trend is here to stay, he adds: “Utility is like a drug — once you have it, you’re hooked”.
The move has put pressure on foreign brands as local carmakers have also improved their quality significantly in recent years, according to analysts.
“Multinationals are in a dilemma over whether to cut costs to compete,” says Yale Zhang, a Shanghai-based consultant.
Domestic automakers are looking to expand on their newly privileged position. IHS Automotive predicts production of 50 new SUV models to be launched in China this year and says that 78 per cent of these will be domestic brands.
Global automakers are already revving up efforts to regain ground by bringing their most successful top-end models from home. Ford, for instance, will use the Beijing Expo to launch its F-150 Raptor in China, a popular pick-up truck in the US, as part of efforts to “inspire a generation of off-road enthusiasts,” says John Lawler, chief executive of Ford Motor China.
But bigger is not the only way carmakers hope to do better in the Chinese market: electric cars also remain a priority for any auto brand looking to get ahead.
While they are still only a small segment of the overall market, greater numbers of “new energy vehicles” are a strategic goal for Beijing even if the demand is not yet there.
The government is aiming for yearly sales to top 3m units by 2025, after growth of nearly 300 per cent in 2015 to 330,000.
Li Keqiang, China’s premier, said in February that the government would step up support for the electric vehicle industry by shifting funds away from subsidies for production to rewarding companies that come up with new technologies and hit sales targets.
“Everyone is under pressure to show their latest NEV [new energy vehicle] models” at the Beijing Expo, says Janet Lewis of Macquarie. But margins will remain low for electric vehicles for a few years to come, she adds. “Right now, selling NEVs is not a profitable proposition.”
A survey from McKinsey suggests that electric vehicles are gaining traction, helped by government policies that make it easier to get a licence plate for electric vehicles in China’s largest cities.
As in the SUV segment, foreign leaders still face local competition. LeEco, a Chinese tech company, became the latest to enter the space, last week announcing a new all-electric concept car christened LeSEE.
“These [technology] companies are almost on par with Silicon Valley,” says Clemens Wasner at EFS, a consultancy. “In a western country their entry into the market would not be economically viable, but in China it might be.”
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