I’ve followed the auto industry since the early 1980s, but have rarely owned an auto stock—brief forays into Toyota, later Peugeot (1986) and Porsche (2003?) are the only names that come to mind.
The basic reasons I see to avoid the auto manufacturers in the developed world:
–continuing shift of intellectual property creation, innovation, brand differentiation—and better-than-commodity profits–from manufacturers to component suppliers
–the tendency of national politics to influence company operations and prospects.
In addition, the traditional industry is very capital intensive, with a high capacity utilization required (80%?) to reach breakeven. The facts that unit selling prices are high and new purchases easy to put off for a year or two mean that the new car industry is highly cyclical.
More than that, today’s industry is in the early stages of a transformation away from units that burn fossil fuels, and are therefore a major source of air pollution, to electric vehicles. The speed at which this change is happening has accelerated over the past decade outside the US because pollution has become a very serious problem in China and because automakers in the EU have been shown to have falsified performance data for their diesel-driven offerings in a poorly thought out effort to meet anti-pollution rules.
California, which had a nineteenth-century-like city pollution problem around Los Angeles as late at the mid-1970s, has led the US charge for clean air. It helps its clout that CA is the country’s largest car market (urban legend: thanks in part to GM’s aggressive lobbying against public transport in southern CA in the mid-20th century). CA has also been joined by about a dozen other states who go along with whatever it decides. The auto manufacturers have done the same, because the high capital intensity of the car industry means building cars to two sets of fuel usage specifications makes no sense.
Enter Donald Trump. His administration has decided to roll back pollution reduction measures put in place by President Obama. CA responded by agreeing with Ford, VW, Honda and BMW to establish Obama-like, but somewhat less strict, requirements for cars sold in that state. Trump’s reposte has been to call the agreement an anti-trust violation, to claim the power to revoke the section of the law that permits CA to set state pollution standards and to threaten to withhold highway funds from CA because the air there is too polluted (?).
Other than pollical grandstanding, it’s hard to figure out what’s going on.
Who benefits from lower gas mileage cars? …Russia and Saudi Arabia, whose economies are almost totally dependent on selling fossil fuels; and the giant multinational oil companies, whose exploration efforts until recently have been predicated on demand increasing strongly enough to push prices up to $100 a barrel.
Who gets hurt by the Trump move? …to the degree that it prolongs widespread use of inefficient gasoline-powered cars, the biggest potential losers are US-based auto firms and the larger number of US residents who become ill in a more polluted environment. Why the car companies? Arguably, they will put less R&D effort into developing less-polluting cars, including electric vehicles. The desertification of China + disenchantment with diesel will have Europe and Asia, on the other hand, making electric cars a very high priority. It wouldn’t be surprising to find in a few years a replay of the situation the Detroit automakers were in during the 1970s—when cheap, well-built imports flooded the country without the Big Three having competitive products.
It’s one of the quirks of the US stock market that it has very little direct representation of the auto industry. So the idea that profits there will be somewhat higher as the firms skimp on R&D will have little/no positive impact on the S&P. Even the energy industry, the only possible beneficiary of this Trump policy, is a mere shadow of its former self. Like Trump’s destruction of the American brand—Apple has dropped from #5 in China to #50 since his election—all I can see is damaging downside.
I think the Trump policy is intentional, like his trade wars and his income tax cut for the super-rich. The most likely explanation for all these facets of Trumponomics is either he doesn’t realize the potentially grave economic damage he’s doing or it’s not a particularly high priority.