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Tuesday, September 26, 2023

Europe's Crackdown on Chinese EV Exports

Mike Smitka
Prof Emeritus of Economics, W&L Univ
Judge, Automotive News PACE Awards for supplier innovation
Steering Committee, GERPISA global auto industry research network
Contributor, SeekingAlpha

Europe is poised to launch an antidumping countervailing duty investigation of Chinese EV exports to Europe. Launching is a political decision. Once the "go" is given, however, it turns into an administrative process that runs according to set rules. What matters is whether the lawyers involved find subsidies in China; they will. [You can find many details here on the European Commission Directorate-General for Trade website, including the link to a spreadsheet of recent EU cases.] It won't matter whether the EU provides similar incentives. Once launched, a guilty verdict is certain, and that could well lead to punitive tariffs that will bring an end to European EV imports from China. The process, however, will take several months, so might not affect European imports until June 2024.

The initial announcement focused on the threat from cheap EV imports from China, naming several of China's EV startups. But that's not how the process works. The EU plays by the rules, and those rules focus on an industry or product category, and in general not an individual firm. So the reality is that the real focus, intended or not, is Tesla. That's because they're the dominant EV exporter – all of Europe's Model 3s come from Shanghai, and many Model Ys. Stopping those exports from Tesla's Shanghai plant will not only lessen the pressure on the German car companies and their high-priced EVs. It will also force Tesla to turn up the volumes of production of the Model Y in their plant in Berlin.

Other EU firms will be caught in the cross-hairs. The Dacia Spring EV comes from China; Dacia is Renault's lower-price brand. Some BMWs and Volvos come from China. Their volumes are still modest – the Spring sold just over 5,600 cars in August – but their plans are expansive. Tesla's volumes, however, aren't trivial. Over the past 12 months Tesla sold 103,000 made-in-China Model 3. I don't have detailed data for made-in-China Model Ys, but I conservatively estimate half of the 200,000 Tesla exported the past 12 months made their way to Europe. At 1 million units a year, that output represents 20% of their Shanghai plant's capacity. In other words, without exports to Europe the Tesla plant in Shanghai can't surpass the 80% utilization level that is the auto industry rule of thumb for being profitable. Making cars, after all, comes with high fixed costs, and the irony is that the lower the wage level, the more plant-level fixed costs matter. Tesla now sits in the normal position of a car company with aging product: cut prices to maintain sales and capacity utilization or keep prices high and see sales plummet. (There is after all what the media calls a price war going on in China's EV market, touched off by none other than Tesla.) Either way, margins collapse. Fortunately Tesla's starting point is one of good margins, so that alone won't push the company into the red. But it does undermine the case for investing in Tesla's stock.

I add further detail in my Sept 26 article on SeekingAlpha. First, I provide underlying data. One key observation is that the era of rapid growth for China's EV market is over. Market expansion will no longer allow EV makers to see sales expand despite keeping prices high. Tesla has launched a refresh of the Model 3, produced for now only in Shanghai. The Chinese auto press however pans it as not worth the most prominent new feature, a higher price. And things will look much worse if the slowdown in the Chinese economy expands from real estate and shadow finance merchants in China's lower-tier cities to the wealthier metropolitan areas such as Shanghai where most EVs are sold.

Addendum: I continue to look into the process, and previous EU countervailing duty examples. The calculated subsidy will be the sum of national level subsidies such as reduced income taxes, provincial subsidies and local subsidies. Those individual items of 1% here and 0.5% there can add up to a significant total, the 19 line items for Chinese truck & bus tires add up to 21.97% (min) and 75.91% (max), so the bottom line in that case is substantive. The DG-Trade does not substantiate every claim, or finds some below the threshold to do detailed calculations. And the geographic variation of policies in China mean that the final CV duties will likely vary from firm to firm, as the industry is spread across a wide swath of China.
There are many issues. How will they treat the free license plates for EVs in 8 of China's largest cities? – I have no idea. If data aren't provided, what will they use as a proxy? One example of subsidized land for a factory in China uses the price of a similar sized site in Taiwan as the comparator. That may or may not be a higher price, but there's some incentive for the industry in China to cooperate lest the Trade Directorate choose arbitrary comparators that are unfavorable. However, recent Chinese legislation that classifies much data as "sensitive" may impede cooperation, lest company officials end up in jail for sharing classified information with a foreign government.
Out of the 432 line items in the database, 274 are for purported subsidies to exporters in China; many others are for India. As with antidumping cases, the steel industry generates multiple examples, but there are also ones for fiber optics, for commercial vehicle tires and on and on. br />Finally, one commentor on SeekingAlpha who has a Europe background believes the political decision has already been made. So now the devil will lie in the details.

Original article Sept 26, the final paragraph and other modifications addedd Sept 27.

Saturday, September 2, 2023

China's EV Market: 2023Q2 update plus an analysis of Guangzhou Auto and its Aion EV brand

Mike SmitkaProf Emeritus of Economics

In July the Guangzhou Auto (GAC)'s Aion brand was #2 in China's EV market, behind BYD but ahead of Li and Tesla. However, the EV market is no longer expanding rapidly, and macroeconomic stormclouds suggest the normal fall sales surge will be muted. Still, does investing in GAC make sense?

In an article published today (Sep 2, 2023) on the finance website SeekingAlpha, I argue that GAC will not continue its rapid growth, while the ongoing restructuring of its recently shuttered joint venture with Mitsubishi Motors should improve profitability. Two other joint ventures, with Toyota and Honda, also appear to be profitable, but again don't provide a growth story – they're only just adding EV assembly lines, so are also capacity constrained.

Management states that Aion is currently profitable, and that they anticipate an IPO. If that comes to fruition, it would make GAC more attractive, and might be interesting on its own. But that would await the ability to show a full year of profits, so I believe won't take place until next spring.

Now SeekingAlpha articles are normally behind a paywall, but you can try going here China 2023Q2 NEV Update: Focus on Guangzhou Automobile and Aion. My analysis draws on a database I've created over the past 3-odd years that has monthly sales data by model since Jan 2020, plus drivetrain, price bracket, brand, firm and segment. I read articles from the Chinese-language auto websites on a daily basis, and of course have overall background from 3 decades of research on the Japanese and North American auto markets.

Wednesday, March 15, 2023

Automotive Productivity: Plant Architecture

Mike Smitka
GERPISA Steering Committee
Judge, Automotive News PACE Awards
Prof Emeritus of Economics, W&L

This is the first little bit of an article on factory architecture, why it changed and its implications for the industry

I've both enjoyed and leared a lot from the substack articles at Contruction Physics. I've started thinking about how I would approach the same general set of topics for automotive. Starting on the construction end of things, early factories were fairly compact, because the use of steam power required locating things as close as possible to the power plant. The first factory I worked in was huge in length, to the point that bicycles were still used, but it was also built in 6 floors. If you look closely at the Diego Rivera Detroit Industry Murals, based on Rivera's first-hand observations in 1932 of Ford's Rouge complex in Dearborn, Michigan, you still see belts in use. Electric drive motors were pervasive by that time – Henry Ford worked at Detroit Edison prior to launching his first of three successive automotive startups in 1903. The transition, however, took decades.

Ford's operations when he started building the Model T were on the top 2 floors of a small building in what is today the Ford Piquette Avenue Plant in Detroit, a half mile north of the Rivera Murals at the DIA. It was an open hall with a series of work stands. At that time Ford relied on craft techniques, carting components made by outside suppliers up a freight elevator to be assembled by experienced fitters into a vehicle. A railroad spur ran up to the back of the building, essential for bringing in bulky and heavy engine castings and frames.
Now a museum, it makes a wonderful venue for receptions – we held the closing "gala" of the June 2022 GERPISA conference there, surrounded by Model T versions and "upfits" into pickup trucks, snowcats and so on.

Ford's first purpose-built factory, a few miles away in Highland Park, didn't come until 1910. It was a multi-story operation, but unlike Piquette was full of machinery, and from 1912-3, a moving assembly line.

Sunday, January 22, 2023

China's Population Decline: Not "News"

Mike Smitka
Judge, Automotive News PACE supplier innovation awards
Steering Committee, GERPISA auto industry research network

Prof Emeritus of Economics, W&L

That China's population would start declining in the 1990s was a "done deal" a quarter century ago. By that point the One Child Family policy had extended the existing low fertility regime of China's cities into the much more populous countryside. The resulting smaller families meant that by 1998 the much smaller cohort of potential mothers under the One Child policy were themselves having few children. Meanwhile, urbanization meant that the number of families for whom a single child made sense was rapidly expanding, while a countryside where child labor was central to the well-being of families was fading. Between changes in target fertility for young mothers, and the cumulative impact of below-replacement fertility, future population decline was locked in place.

...that's China's population decline makes headlines is a surprise...

A bit more on the details. Maintaining a stable population requires that women average 2.1 surviving children, to ensure that there's at least one daughter to replace each mother. Since 1980, estimates of the "Total Fertility Rate" have remained well below 2.0 – even with the policy's many exemptions, families with 3 or more children remained a distinct exception. Hence a quarter century ago it was already clear that China's population would at some point begin to decline. Not only was the number of 15-19 year old women 6% lower than in 1980, the number of 0-4 year girls was 15% lower. By the mid-1990s the age of marriage had also risen, and teenaged mothers are now highly unusual. So by 1998, the mothers of the late 2010s had already been born, and were far fewer in number. Even if the timing of onset and rate of decline couldn't be pinned down without knowing how rapidly lifespans would increae (ditto subsequent fertility changes), the broad outline was there to be seen by anyone who understood basic demographics.

China's Population Structure, 1998
from PopulationPyramid.net

Of course we now know those details. Longevity did increase, and helped by very low child mortality, a girl born today can expect to live 80 years. Older Chinese are in no hurry to die! On the opposite end, however, fertility hasn't just remained low, it's fallen. As a result, the number of 0-4 year girls in 2022 is an estimated 40% below the number of young 20-24 year old women in 1991. Even if these girls go on to average 2.1 children – so far all evidence points to them not doing so – the number of mothers will fall through 2043. As the population pyramid shows, with today's girls the smallest cohort in decades, total population wouldn't start to stabilize for another 60 years, when that cohort of women starts to die off. Because China's population is so large, an option available to the US or the EU – accepting large numbers of immigrants – won't work. There simply won't be enough young people elsewhere in the world to fill the gap.

China's Population Structure, 2023
from PopulationPyramid.net

I've simplified the story. Not all women have children at age 20, and mortality rates vary with age and can predictably be expected to change as today's younger Chinese grow up with cleaner air and better drinking water, and are far less inclined to smoke. Of course they're also better fed and sedentary, which works in the opposite direction. Fertility rates will be different, even if the experience of Japan, Korea, and Southern Europe suggest they won't rise. Chinese exhibit a preference for sons, and by the late 1990s families engaged in selective abortions, so that the ratio of boys to girls rose 10 percentage points; the TFR thus needs to be 2.3 to guarantee that enough young girls will be born to replace their mothers. Aging likewise is uneven, tempered by the timing when larger cohorts reach their 70s. So demographers combine data on age-specific fertility and mortality to generate projections. Pandemics aside, those are pretty good over a 2-decade timespan. Thereafter the high-fertility, low-mortality case diverges from the low-fertility, high-mortality one. Still, the fact that every mother in 2043 has already been born provides a solid baseline.

That the likely population decline of 2022 makes headlines is thus a bit surprising. That the media coverage fails to focus on the consequent decline of the working age population, which is of the essence to future economic growth, is even more surprising. I know though from 3 decades in the classroom that the demographic momentum that comes from a population's age structure and birth/death rates is not intuitive. Even I, more numbers oriented that most humans, was once surprised by how much we know two decades in advance. It's also key to understanding retirement issues, and that too is not intuitive to a 20-something. As our societies age, though, it will come to dominate all of the middle- and high-income societies.

Addendum

That having a second child is viewed as challenging comes out in a January 24, 2023 New York Times article, "They Poured Their Savings Into Homes That Were Never Built" by Isabelle Qian and Agnes Chang. The article traces 4 individuals who took out mortgages to purchase apartments on which construction has ceased. Three indicate demographic implications: one a broken engagement and end of plans to have a child, and two who now "... can’t imagine trying to buy another home or having a second child," and a second who proclaimed that, due to the lost downpayment on a storefront property and continued mortgage payments, they are “... afraid to have another child. The income and expenses barely break even.” Nothing a government run by old men is going to do will enable such couples to have the three or more children necesary to reverse population decline.

Tuesday, August 23, 2022

Cars as Differentiated Durable Consumer Goods

Mike Smitka
Retired Economist
GERPISA Steering Committee
Automotive News PACE Judge

The investor site SeekingAlpha just posted my most recent article, Tesla's Thin Model Pipeline. That article is an application of the economics of differentiated durable goods to the auto industry.

First, autos are highly differentiated consumer good. Car company strategies reflect that, since Alfred Sloan organized General Motors to offer A car for every purpose..." (the ad is downloaded from the digital archives at The Henry Ford). More generally, use cases differ tremendously, from utilitarian transport to vehicles meant to display wealth. Work vehicles are even more differentiated, with up-fitters adding bodies to frame/drivetrain/cab sets for a multiplicity of businesses. We have small commuter cars, family-oriented SUVs, performance cars, and full-sized pickups with towing packages for farmers and others – I go past the Virginia Horse Center every time I head to town, lots of fifth-wheeler duallies.

Empirically, that suggests lots of models and a fragmented market. I use model-level data for Europe and for China (the world's largest vehicle market) to show just that. In Europe, no single model (or model series, e.g. the BMW 3-series) holds even 2% of the market, while over 400 models were available. In China, only 3 vehicles (barely) cleared 2%, while over 540 models were available. And these are just passenger vehicles. I don't have comparable data for the US, so I did a "deep dive" into the market-leading F-150 to show that it in fact consists of a family of models, suggesting that the upper limit for market share is likewise 2%.

The second piece is that vehicles are durable, with the average car on the road over 12 years old, and light trucks even older (from memory, 14 years). Used car sales are roughly 3x those of new. Hence new cars compete with used, and the more years a new car model is on the market, the greater the cannibalization from used cars. Henry Ford discovered that the hard way in the mid-1920s, as sales of the Model T fell despite repeatedly lowering the price. Ultimately Ford shut down production.

The economics literature on durable goods pricing is thin, and I know of only one set of studies that directly address that issue, from Adam Copeland of the NY Fed, solo and with various co-authors. Transaction data are hard to come by, the datasets compiled by various consulting companies are expensive and need to be cleaned up to handle rebates to consumers and dealers. That most new car purchases are accompanied by trade-ins further muddies the data. Their findings include an annual price drop of nearly 9%, and a shift down the income scale as a model ages. US consumers are well aware of these trends, and those on a tight budget time their purchases accordingly. Such consumers are also more likely to compare new and used cars. My son just bought a Subaru Legacy, and he shopped both. Given the current (August 2022) distortions in the market, he found that if he could wait, he could purchase a new car at MSRP, sticker price. If he wanted one immediately, he had to purchase used and pay above sticker. He could and did wait.

...to grow, Tesla has to develop a portfolio of new products and regularly renew existing ones...

Combine both of the above and the result is that car companies offer a portfolio of products that they renew on a regular basis. On SeekingAlpha I detail that as well, looking at the release cadence of new and refreshed models by the luxury car companies with which Tesla competes. As to Tesla, they have only one concrete future product, the Cybertruck set to launch in the summer of 2023. This year they've also refreshed the interior of the Model S. However, they've not updated the sheet metal on any of their existing vehicles – the Model 3 is overdue for that – nor have they announced any future product, only vague promises to come out with a limited-volume Roadster. Furthermore, I detail the limited market for pickups in China and Europe. The Cybertruck may do well in the US, but it's not a global vehicle. The stock market values Tesla as a high-growth company. However, they have revealed no strategy to develop a portfolio of products or to regularly renew existing products. My analysis indicates they can't grow without doing both.

Tesla appears likely to launch the Semi in 2023, but that is not a passenger vehicle and again is aimed at the US market.

Tuesday, August 2, 2022

China's NEV Market: Rising Segments, Falling Segments will generate winners and losers

Mike Smitka
Prof Emeritus of Economics
Automotive News PACE Awards Judge

I've been tracking Chinese sales data for a couple years, and pulled together thoughts in a brief article, China NEV Segment Analysis, on the finance website Seeking Alpha. The midsized segments, both sedans and SUVs, are stagnant. That's where Tesla's Model 3 and Model Y compete. In contrast, the compact "A" segments are expanding. Players there include one one startup, XPeng, but has BYD, VW and Geely as major players. To my surprise, I also find SOEs with decent shares, particularly GAC's Aion [GAC is owned by the Guangzhou Municipal government]. Most of the SOEs have lived quite well off of profits earned by their joint venture partners, such as Toyota and Honda for GAC. Are these proper commercial ventures, drawing upon the experience of SOEs in designing vehicles and running factories? Historically the SOEs were poor at design and at marketing. Some of that is the home boy effect – you won't find many Aion vehicles on the streets of Shanghai or Beijing. I don't know the produzct, I'm not a "car guy," so maybe these are real ventures properly run with earning money as a goal. But they could also be the result of party hacks pushing management to follow the EV trend, using their joint venture profits to make up for a lack of business acumen (and a very crowded market).

I also argue that the car market faces many headwinds. China has worked through the demographic dividend generated by falling birth rates, but now the working age population is shrinking, and probably the overall population as well. It's easy among the monthly NEV sales hype to overlook that the overall Chinese car market peaked in 2017. Then there's the end of the real estate bubble, evidenced by the failure of Evergrande, and the prospect of continuing lockdowns, an ironic side effect of China's initial success in using a combination of testing, contact tracing and quarantines to suppress the pandemic. There's no concrete left to pour after the huge infrastructure expansion that kept China from suffering the worst effects of the US real estate meltdown. That ammo has been depleted, and while Beijing talks about boosting car sales to offset the slowdown, consumers can't sell the condo that represents the biggest part of their life savings, and on top of that are worried that their bank may be the next one to shut its doors.

In any case, it will be interesting to see who does well in the NEV market, which just (barely) set a new sales record in July of 560,000 units. I think it's the bigger players who will fare well. VW's R&D spend is $3.6 billion a quarter; that's more than the combined revenue of XPeng and Nio, two of the current "pure play" EV favorites. Cars are in the end a consumer product, and having a broad, regularly refreshed portfolio of models on offer is of the essence. So my belief is that in the end the global OEMs will do well, and one or more of the private Chinese car companies: BYD, Geely and Great Wall. BYD is already in 6 of the 9 segments I tracked, as is Geely. VW, despite its late start, is already in 7. They cover most of the bases already. In contrast, Tesla can't seem to get new product out the door, and is stuck with but two models, and those in the stagnant mid-sized segment. They aren't heading towards failure, but they do risk being left in the dust as an also-ran.

Friday, April 8, 2022

Car Price Inflation: I Expect a Rapid Reversal

Mike Smitka
GERPISA 2022 Planning Committee
Automotive News PACE Judge
Prof Emeritus of Economics

Auto industry researchers, journalists and others, please consider attending the June 14-16 GERPISA conference in Ann Arbor, Michigan. A one-day price is available for locals who don't want to attend the full conference. A Tuesday dinner/reception and a Thursday Gala at the Ford Piquette Avenue Museum in Detroit. Breakfasts and lunches included. Morning events will be available to virtual participants; afternoon events are aimed at those attending in person. Go to GERPISA.org for details.

New car prices – and dealership profits are at record highs. Base models are unvailable, and high used car prices add to the mix. From another angle, the two line items are the biggest elements driving our 7% inflation rate. I believe, however, that "normalization" – greater availability, softer prices – will be sudden, muted only by the low level of cars flowing into the used vehicle market by car rental companies and other fleet operators. Why? – the market for high-end vehicles just isn't that large, so the shift from sticker-plus to discounting will occur over just a few months. Once it does, car makers will face a stronger incentive to produce vehicles with less expensive trim levels and in less expensive price segments. They won't have to discount the latter immediately, because such vehicles simply haven't been available. That won't last long, perhaps another 6 months.

To understand my logic, it's necessary to step back and look at the dynamics of the market since the onset of the pandemic. New and used markets are tightly linked, and the sources of "new" used cars (that is, sales by first owners) are part of the story. Yes, there's a chip shortage, and a war. However, that's but one factor, and you should be wary of such simple explanations. Analytics would be much simpler if we lived in a monocausal world, but we don't.

I'll put an arrow chart at the bottom, but I think a chronological exposition highlights the multiple feedback effects and channels of causation. So grab onto your seats, here we go!

  1. The initial total shutdown froze both production and sales. Nothing happened – except in the used car market. Without business travel, Enterprise, Hertz and their peers were lift with fleets of cars that lost value by the day. We're not talking small numbers – Enterprise had about 2,000 vehicles just at the Detroit airport, and nearly 200 at their rural Rockbridge County, Virginia store, to serve a population of a mere 35,000. It didn't help that a couple of these companies were in poor financial help. What resulted was a fire sale, as rental companies "de-fleeted" as fast as they could, even if it meant booking a loss on the vehicle. Used car prices crashed.
  2. However, that process ended once fleets had been slashed. In a normal year Enterprise buys 1 million new vehicles, the world's single largest purchaser. The flip side is that they also normally sell 1 million used vehicles directly to consumers and dealers, or dispose of them through used car auctions. Now none were flowing into the market. Consumers weren't driving much, remote work lessened commuting and attendant accidents, and with fewer new cars being sold, trade ins were also lower in number. Consumers who normally bought used cars held onto their cars longer, too, so that source also fell.
  3. When demand returned, prices had nowhere to go but up. With used car prices rising at their fasted rate in history, demand shifted to new cars. Well, new car prices rose, initially because discounts shrank, and then vanished. Enter fleet purchasers. Normally they would opt for lower trim levels and include a higher mix of sedans than the overall market. But car companies weren't willing to discount those, or even to produce them. Instead they had to hold onto cars longer, and try to offset higher purchase prices on the SUVs they did buy with higher rental prices. So while there were more tradeins, the huge flow of one-year-old, moderate mileage rental vehicles of pre-pandemic times didn't return. Meanwhile used car purchasers found they couldn't afford to get rid of their old ride for one that was a bit new and more reliable.
  4. You have surely noted that I've not mentioned supply chain problems. That's because I believe they are secondary to the interactions of new and used vehicle markets, and the flow of used vehicles. Lost production hurts, because when car companies are constrained in what they can produce, they move upmarket in trim levels and vehicle segments. For those old enough to remember, that happened in Spring 1981 when Japan agreed to Reagan's "Voluntary" Export Restraint that limited Honda, Toyota and their competitors to a combined 1.68 million units. I was about to buy my first new car, and watched the price on a subcompact rise 25% almost overnight. I didn't have to buy a more expensive trim package. Instead, I was forced to buy add-ons, a paint protection package that began peeling within a couple months, from a vendor no longer around. Grrr. But such is common in today's market. Clearly chip shortages add to the price swings, but even if we didn't have them, I am sure we would have seen a sharp spike.
  5. So where is the market heading? Well, the dynamics I've sketched propped up the prices of luxury SUVs and fully-loaded vehicles. It won't take much to reverse that, because we all have run through stimulus money while wages aren't rising enough to push ordinary workers into the 15 million or so individuals with an income high enough to purchase a new vehicle. I've already heard from a couple reliable (but off-the-record) sources that big pickups and the largest class of luxury SUVs aren't selling. The rest won't be far behind.
  6. Now the permanent shift will come once car rental agencies are able to re-fleet. Hertz coming out of bankruptcy is in my judgement showing desperation in striking deals to contract for large numbers Tesla EVs and now Polestar EVs. (I suspect the actual contracts are rife with escape clauses so that the numbers prove more PR than a purchase commitment.) Again, I am reading hints of re-fleeting, versus none a month ago. Within 9 months those cars will be cycled out, because from then on it will be easier for rental companies will able to buy more cars. Prices for used vehicles will drop rapidly, and across the board.
  7. Note one implication: we will go from sharply rising new and used car prices to sharply falling ones in the space of 3-4 months. Gasoline prices are another major component for US inflation. Petroleum prices are set in global markets, and Russia is 11% of global production. The US is 20%, but is a modest net importer. So Russia accounts for a larger share of global exports. How much short-term flexibility do Saudi Arabia and the other Gulf states have to increase output? How leaky with Russian sanctions be? I don't know, but I don't expect further price increases. If so, then the two biggest sources of inflation will turn negative, and energy prices become neutral. I've already been surprised by how long inflation has lasted, but I remain convinced it's transitory.

I have opted to focus this post on the components of new and used vehicle markets, while shying away from data. OK, typically 2 or more used cars sell for every new car, and I can with some effort put specific numbers on that. It would make for a long and turgid post, or longer and less readable one. It's also very, very hard to get current data on fleet purchases and other components of a very dynamic market. I've also simplified, with no mention of interest rates or leasing. I don't believe my argument depends on such details.

From my presentation at the June 2021 GERPISA virtual conference.

Wednesday, January 19, 2022

Tesla China: Upside is Vanishing

Mike Smitka
Prof Emeritus of Economics
GERPISA.org 2022 conference team

The following appears on the SeekingAlpha finance blog. I wrote this last week, editorial approval took a long time due to COVID.

Were I to rewrite it, I'd probably start:

"...in 2021 Tesla exported an average of 15,000 Model 3's a month to Europe. At some point, though, Tesla Berlin will start production. Where will the Model 3's go? – they're in the "B" midsized sedan segment in China, which is the slowest growing EV segment in China. Furthermore, within the segment Tesla lost market share quarter by quarter in 2021. So the one place they won't go is to Chinese consumers. They want SUVs and fresher vehicles.

Tesla China: As Good As It Gets?

Jan 19, 2022 03:09 PM | Tesla, Inc.(TSLA) | By: Mike Smitka

  • Tesla's CY2021 sales of 321,145 units are stellar, bolstered by December sales of 70,602 units. The good news is that the Model Y is holding onto its share in the "midsized SUV" segment, and that segment expanded 3.5x in 2021. CY2022 should be good.
  • The bad news is that the Model 3 lost share in the "B" sedan segment throughout 2021, and that segment grew the slowest in 2021.
  • With no new models until 2023 or later, CY2022 is as good as it gets. Read the full article now »

Thursday, September 23, 2021

Tesla, GM and BYD: Three China Strategies

Mike Smitka

SeekingAlph published an article by yours truly today comparing the stategies of Tesla, BYD and GM in the Chinese market. As you may know, GM has far and away the best-selling EV in China in the Wuling Hongguang MINI EV, which sold over 40,000 units in August 2021, and has held the top slot since launching in September 2020.

In the article, I noted that GM has a long history of leveraging successful inexpensive vehicles to sell more up-scale and profitable models, going back to the formative period of the 1920s under Alfred Sloan and his "a car for every pocket" product portfolio. But when I wrote the article, there was as yet no evidence on how they would do that for the Hongguang, which is made by the SAIC GM Wuling joint venture, but did not carry the GM logo.

Now we know: Wuling has a new logo, with GM at the center.

In my mind, that puts GM in a strong sales position in China, as the market for EVs expands by leaps and bounds. In contrast, Tesla has no coherent strategy, with only one "fresh" model (the Model Y) and an uncertain future for the Model 3. (We won't know until September EV sales data are out, because Tesla bunches sales in the last month of the quarter.) As a firm, they seem to be in no rush to build a product portfolio, and instead are placing a huge bet that the Model 3 and Model Y will remain strong sellers indefinitely. They amplify that with a US-centric product strategy: their next vehicle will be the CyberTruck, singularly unsuited to the Chinese market, where pickups are an unstylish niche. Worse, over 50% of Tesla's sales are in China's 10 largest cities, where the CyberTruck is an even worse fit. As a firm, their stock price depends on rapid expansion, which is only possible if they can gain share in China and Europe. With everyone but them launching product aimed squarely at the core market segments in China and Europe, that is not going to happen.

In contrast, BYD ticks all the boxes for success. They have a broad product portfolio, and a regular cadence of renewing old models. They have commercial vehicles (thanks to SeekingAlpha comments by MaxedOutMomma for the link to BYD's commercial products). They have broad geographic coverage. And they're currently the #2 EV producer in the world's largest market.

All for now, to not abuse SeekingAlpha's exclusivity. Look for a long, detailed article there in about a month. Note that my most consistent COVID lockdown project [alongside caring for 2 young granddaughters] has been to learn to read Chinese. I've progressed enough to follow Chinese-language automotive news on a regular basis. Well, the news output there is huge, so far my focus has been the new energy vehicle passenger car market – I've bookmarked about 30 sites, and look at a half-dozen almost daily. I'll be expanding my purview to include commercial vehicles. Consistent with that, let give a plug for Richard Doner, Gregory Noble and John Ravenhill's The Political Economy of Automotive Industrialization in East Asia, which includes a really nice chapter on China. Of course Peter Warrian and I also have a chapter on the Chinese auto industry in our 2017 book, link here.