The first half of 2020 was a disaster for the global auto industry. A certain malevolent micro-organism caused sales of cars (among other items) to plummet, and most automakers lost barrels of money. Lately, sales have started to rebound, but many analysts believe that the virus-driven economic crisis will accelerate the changes that are already underway in the industry, and that auto brands will have to adapt to a post-COVID world, or perish.
Volkswagen lost almost a billion bucks in the first half, Daimler dropped $1.95 billion in the second quarter alone, and Renault recorded a whopping loss of $8.6 billion in the first half. BMW, Volvo and Ford also reported substantial losses in the first half.
Other automakers fared better. Groupe PSA (Peugeot, Citroen et al) pulled off a profit of $700 million in the first half (still not good news—the company earned $2.2 billion during the same period of 2019). Toyota and GM both eked out modest profits. Porsche was a diamond amidst the dung—it delivered a profit of $1.4 billion in the first half, demonstrating the old maxim that luxury brands usually do just fine during financial crises (by all accounts, yacht sales are booming).
A certain California carmaker was another surprising success story. In fact, so far Tesla has sailed through the corona crisis the way the Roadrunner skated through Wile E Coyote’s mayhem—or the way Jake and Elwood’s Bluesmobile cruised unscathed through one of the biggest car-crash scenes in cinematic history. Whatever simile you choose, the company’s second-quarter profit sent the TSLA stock price soaring, and capped a full year of profitability.
Comparisons between Tesla’s vehicles and competing models have long been a point of mortification for legacy automakers. Now the disparity in financial performance is giving auto industry execs another reason to reach for the medications.
As Warren Buffett famously said, “When the tide goes out you discover who’s been swimming naked.” Now that the tide of auto sales, so high for so many years, has receded, some of the industry’s underlying problems may soon be laid bare.
Neil Winton, writing in Forbes, cites a report from the Center for Automotive Research (CAR) in Duisberg, Germany by Professor Ferdinand Dudenhoeffer, which found that the financial debacles at BMW and other manufacturers have revealed weaknesses that will require action. “BMW, with traditionally good profits, suffered its historically highest losses in the second quarter,” Dudenhoeffer said. “BMW has launched an austerity program and announced job cuts. [The data] shows that hidden problems were revealed at BMW during the corona crisis.”
“Tesla is becoming a very serious competitor in the premium market. Its development compared with BMW, Audi, and Mercedes is astonishing,” Dudenhoeffer continued. “Tesla is far from the other premium manufacturers [in terms of profits], with the exception of Porsche. A startup with enormous investments in new plants is overshadowing the established premium manufacturers.”
Could it be that one of the deficiencies that legacy automakers urgently need to address is a failure to prepare for the electric future?