Global auto sales are in the midst of the first sustained slowdown since the 2008 financial crisis, according to new figures published by the WSJ. This complicates an already precarious situation for automakers, who have also been negatively affected by volatile global trade policy, rising commodity prices, declining demand and tariffs.
China and Europe are two key global markets that are recording the largest slowdown, while the United States continues to try and hammer out new trade agreements.
The auto market in China – where new-car sales fell 5.3% to 1.59 million in July – compared with the year-earlier period has also slowed due to worsening trade tensions. For the full year, sales are forecast to grow 1.2% over last year, according to LMC Automotive, down from a 13% growth rate in 2016 and 2.1% in 2017.
At the same time, demand for American vehicles, which generally has acted as a universal global catalyst, has also topped out, largely due to higher prices and higher loan rates, but perhaps also due to rising nationalistic sentiment amid a “don’t buy American” media wave.
Demand is also starting to wane in Europe, sliding to “pre-recession” levels. Many American car companies had already struggled to maintain profitability in Europe where the slowdown in demand is exacerbating the bottom line.
Of course, not all global demand has dried up: the global economic strength continues to support solid underlying demand. However, on the horizon, speed bumps are emerging: for one, President Trump’s trade policies are having a negative affect on consumer confidence and are seen outside the US as “the biggest threat to continued economic growth.”
By the same token, if tensions ease between the United States and trade partners, however, that could act as a tailwind for the industry as we saw yesterday when automaker stocks rallied following the announcement of the US-Mexico trade deal as part of Trump’s NAFTA overhaul. Similarly, German auto makers also outperformed their respective indices during Monday’s session.
But the United States still has Europe and China targeted for new tariffs. China has responded by taxing US built vehicles 40% when they are imported. Meanwhile, analysts believe that the entire industry is at a tipping point and that a trade war could push auto demand “over the cliff”. According to Oxford Economics, a “moderate trade war scenario” could cause a decline in global GDP by about 0.5% in 2019.
Both Ford and Fiat had been counting on the Chinese market to reduce their dependence on North America. U.S. auto sales, having peaked in 2016 at a record 17.5 million, are on track to decline in 2018 for a second year in a row.
This uncertain scenario has caused automakers and auto suppliers, like Ford and Continental AG, to cite lack of demand in China and Europe as a reason that profits may miss expectations this year. This all comes at a time when R&D spending for the industry is also on the rise:
“The slowdown comes at a very difficult time as [the industry] transitions to more electrification and the robocar arms race sucks up research and development money,” said Dave Sullivan, an analyst with consulting firm AutoPacific Inc.
At the same time, commodity prices are rising, led by steel and aluminum prices – the result of recent Trump tariffs. New emission standards in Europe and China are also causing car companies to spend billions to try and meet new rigorous standards.
Since 2010, global auto sales have been on the rise to the tune of more than 5% annually. This year, even though vehicle sales are estimated to hit 97 million worldwide, the growth rate should slow to 1.8%, according to the forecasting firm LMC Automotive.
All the while, President Trump sees the automotive industry as a bargaining chip – often threatening to introduce additional tariffs that may wind up acting as headwinds for the overall industry. From the WSJ:
In May, the White House asked the Commerce Department to investigate whether it could use a national-security law to impose tariffs of up to 25% on cars and auto parts imported into the U.S.
Such actions could further crimp car sales, auto makers and analysts say.
“This would produce a near standstill in the vehicle markets,” said Justin Cox, a senior analyst with LMC Automotive. The firm forecasts that, if the trade dispute escalates, new-car sales in 2020 are likely to come in three million vehicles lower than current forecasts.
In China, new car sales fell 5.3% in July, which was a shock to an industry that has been experiencing rapid growth as a result of new wealth accrued by the country’s middle class. China is now the world’s largest auto market by number of sales, with 28.6 million new vehicle sales last year, according to the report.
Meanwhile, back in the United States, Ford cut its guidance back in July, blaming rising costs and the trade environment in both Europe and China. As we previously reported, July car sales in the US also tumbling as profit-seeking automakers slashed discounts.
As we noted then, all major manufacturers reported a sharp drop in U.S. deliveries for July, led by a 15% plunge at Nissan Motor. The reason: for the first time in 55 months, the auto industry – perhaps due to concerns about the impact of auto tariffs – cut back spending on incentives, snapping a streak of monthly consecutive increases that began 4 1/2 years ago, according to J.D. Power.
Rising rates and blowing out summer inventory were also blamed for sales tumbling.
Charlie Chesbrough, senior economist for Cox Automotive, pointed out another possible issue: that while automakers are pulling back on new-vehicle incentives, there are great deals on used-car lots. Returns of vehicles that have been leased are on the rise, and that added supply gives consumers more choice of lower-priced alternatives to new models.
“There is such tremendous competition from the used-car market,” Chesbrough told Bloomberg. “We have so many off-lease vehicles coming back to market and they are cheaper than new cars.”
But as these new global sales figures show, the problem isn’t just contained to the US. If tensions between the United States, China and Europe don’t improve, global automakers will be forced to start looking at emerging markets – places like India and Africa – to begin growing new markets in order to help try to keep up with targets.