Blog: Dave LeggettShifting centre of gravity for auto industry

Dave Leggett | 2 November 2009

Official data suggests that the US economy moved out of recession in the third quarter. While that may be a step in the right direction, deep concerns remain over the outlook. The economic uptick thus far has been led by the federal government stimulus (including cash for clunkers) and an inventory effect. The positive impact of those things will be on the wane next year and the outlook on unemployment is stubbornly bleak.

It looks like US consumers will remain reluctant to spend next year - especially on big ticket items like new cars. Indeed, there is a broad industry consensus that 2010 will be another tough year in the US automotive market, with light vehicle sales staying under 12m units. Cash for clunkers will have taken some sales from next year and the underlying fragility of demand was confirmed when sales turned down so sharply in September.

And debate will continue about the extent to which the US market may have permanently shifted down from the underlying pre-crisis trend which permitted annual peaks to the tune of 16m-17m units, fed by easy credit and big incentives.

Even if some degree of pent-up demand is building, it's hard to see it becoming effective demand quickly on the basis of the projected economic backdrop. It's looking increasingly certain that the market recovery path in North America will be a gradual one and that companies should plan for that.

I guess it's cold comfort, but things could be worse: at least the US economy is growing again. The challenge for US policy makers is to maintain momentum while keeping the budget deficit under some sort of control. If interest rates head up too quickly, fragile confidence could quickly ebb.

The anaemic recovery in prospect for the US continues to contrast with developments in China, where the economy is surging on the back of a highly effective government stimulus package, the Chinese government especially anxious about the wider social implications of any prolonged economic slowdown. The Chinese authorities also have plenty of money in the bank to carry on supporting the domestic economy for a long time to come. Will they? You betcha. People putting down payments on new cars and TVs tend not to be manning the barricades.

As that Chinese car-purchasing pie continues to grow, how much share will Western firms have? Or, more accurately, how much share will they be permitted to have as their usefulness as automotive technology donors - via joint ventures - declines? In that quest they will be helped if Chinese consumers evolve to a level where they are prepared to pay a premium for the Western brand; the local JV partners are developing their own brands, but they also recognise that Western brands carry value in the market.

Foreign players in China will also likely be under growing pressure to demonstrate 'usefulness' to their increasingly technically competent local partners, whether it is advanced technology transfer, strong domestic sales or assistance with Chinese firms' internationalisation strategies. JV relationships in China may move up a gear for some. Others may leave.

But a new phase is coming. Strategies for China will become increasingly important as the global economic centre of gravity continues to move towards East Asia. The latest evidence points to an acceleration in that trend.


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