North American Automotive Market
The North American light vehicle market is on the verge of confronting significant changes which will lead the industry to a very precarious condition. The once stable and evolving industry is now getting ready for a major overhaul which can simultaneously create threats and opportunities for the regional automakers. US president Donald Trump made a number of pledges during his election campaigns related to trade and manufacturing. Some of his rhetoric was directly related to the automotive sector which included 35% tariffs on imported vehicles, bringing jobs back to the US, border adjustment tax and severe consequences for the auto investors outside the US.
Initially, the epicentre of automotive trade war rhetoric was limited to Mexico, though later on Mr. Trump also lambasted against Germany and Japan blaming for currency undervaluation. Before taking the oath, it appeared that his elections pledges would not materialise; now it is the inverse. So, taking the underlying premise of his rhetoric, the question is how much is achievable without disturbing the very fabric of the automotive industry. Unlike, the construction industry (where Mr. Trump has quite extensive experience), the automotive industry is highly global and integrated, which depends on a very convoluted supply chain structure. Most of the auto parts cross the US borders few times before ending up in a Mexican/Canadian assembly plant. The same apply to the US car makers where a sheer portion of the auto parts is imported, which would also defy the government “Buy America” rule in strict terms.
The new US administration seems committed to supporting the country automotive industry, likely through protectionist measures, incentives and cajoling. This can help increasing the capacity utilisation domestically and lure further investment announcements. However, any non-market driven investment decisions by OEMs can bear significant consequences in the medium to long term. There would likely be some additional increment in the US production in the short term on the back of curbing imports, which may be at the expense of high marginal costs and distortions in the regional automotive supply chain.
Mexico sources most auto parts and automotive steel from the US, so any changes in duties on either side can impact the regional supply chain. Therefore, revising NAFTA through imposing tariffs on Mexico would take its toll on the automotive industry, regardless of whether these new tariffs are agreed mutually between the members’ states. We understand that Mexican vehicles’ exports to the US are dominated by B and C category cars, where the profit margins are already thin. So, any imposition of tariffs or taxes can directly be passed to end users. Moreover, there is also less scope for a significant rise in production of these categories cars in the US due to limited capacity. Buyers would also have less room for substituting B and C cars with high-end vehicles such as SUVs due to constrained consumer surplus. Consequently, there would be a substantial loss of sales and delay in buying decisions.
Commodity Inside ascertains that the overall US production utilisation is currently at high levels. So, beyond a certain threshold, any additional demand created due to trade diversion would be hard to meet without additional investment domestically. Building new assembly plants or relocation would not be feasible in the short run, and any such attempts would be untenable without understanding the long term dynamics.