In “🚗Where's the Auto Distress?🚗,” we poked fun at ourselves and our earlier piece entitled “Is Another Wave of Auto-Related Bankruptcy Around the Corner?” because the answer to the latter has, for the most part, been “no.” But both pieces are worth revisiting. In the latter we wrote,
Production levels, generally, are projected to decline through 2021. Obviously, reduced production levels and idled plants portend poorly for a lot of players in the auto supply chain.
And in the former we noted,
So, sure. Distressed activity thus far in 2018 has been light in the automotive space. But dark clouds are forming. Act accordingly.
And by dark clouds, we didn’t exactly mean this but:
With a seeming snap-of-the-finger, Harley Davidson ($HOG) announced that it would move some production out of the US to Europe, where HOG generates 16% of its sales, to avoid EU tariffs on imported product. Per the Economist:
It puts the cost of absorbing the EU’s tariffs up to the end of this year at $30m-45m. It has facilities in countries unaffected by European tariffs that can ramp up relatively quickly.
Trump was predictably nonplussed, saying “don’t get cute with us” and this:
AMERICAN companies “will react and they will put pressure on the American administration to say, ‘Hey, hold on a minute. This is not good for the American economy.’” So said Cecilia Malmström, the European Union’s trade commissioner, on news that Harley-Davidson plans to move some production out of America to avoid tariffs imposed by the EU on motorcycles imported from America.
Will react? Harley Davidson has reacted. Likewise, motorcycle-maker Polaris Industries Inc. ($PII) indicated Friday that it, too, is considering moving production of some motorcycles to Poland from Iowa on account of the tariffs. Per the USAToday:
In its first quarter earnings released in April, Polaris projected around $15 million in additional costs in 2018. Rogers said the latest tariffs would raise costs further, declining to estimate by how much. "But we're definitely seeing an increase in costs," she said.
The largest U.S. automaker said in comments filed on Friday with the U.S. Commerce Department that overly broad tariffs could "lead to a smaller GM, a reduced presence at home and abroad for this iconic American company, and risk less — not more — U.S. jobs."
The Auto Alliance industry group seized on the figure, arguing that auto tariffs could increase the average car price by nearly $6,000, costing the American people an additional $45 billion in aggregate.
Moody’s weighed in as well:
US auto tariff would be broadly credit negative for global auto industry. Potential US tariffs on imported cars, parts are broadly credit negative for the auto industry. The Commerce Department is conducting a review of whether auto imports harm national security. A similar probe resulted in 25% tariffs on imported steel and 10% on aluminum being implemented 1 June. A 25% tariff on imported vehicles and parts would be negative for most every auto sector group – carmakers, parts suppliers, dealers, retailers and transportation companies.
Relating specifically to Ford Motor Company ($F) and GM, it continued further:
US automakers would be negatively affected. Tariffs would be a negative for both Ford and GM. The burden would be greater for GM because it depends more on imports from Mexico and Canada to support US operations – 30% of its US unit sales versus 20% of US sales for Ford. In addition, a significant portion of GM's high-margin trucks and SUVs are sourced from Mexico and Canada. In contrast, Ford's imports to the US are almost exclusively cars — a franchise it is winding down. Both manufacturers would need to absorb the cost of scaling back Mexican and Canadian production and moving some back to the US. They would also probably need to subsidize sales to offset the tariffs for a time, with higher costs eventually passed on to consumers.
On the supply side, Moody’s continued:
Tariffs would also hurt major auto-parts manufacturers. The largest parts suppliers match automakers' production and vehicles and may struggle to adapt following any tariffs. Suppliers' efforts to keep cost down often result in multiple cross-border trips for goods and could incur multiple tariff charges. Avoiding those costs may disrupt the supply chain. Some parts makers have US capacity they could restart at a price. Companies with broad product portfolios, large market share, or that are sole suppliers of key parts will fare better.
And what about dealers and parts retailers? More from Moody’s:
Significant negative for US auto dealers, little change for parts retailers. Dealers heavily weighted toward imports (most of those we rate) will suffer. Penske Auto and Lithia would fare best. Many brands viewed as imports, such as BMW and Toyota, are assembled in the US, so there could be model shifting. Tariffs would be fairly benign for part retailers insulated by demand from the 260 million vehicles now on the road.
Upshot: perhaps its too early to give up on our predictions. Thanks to President Trump’s trade policy, there may, indeed, be auto distress right around the corner as big players adjust their supply chain and manufacturing models. Revenue streams are about to be disrupted.