Tuesday, September 14, 2010

China Auto Mergers: It's a sellers' market...

...and nobody's selling.

An article in today's People's Daily (English) says that the auto industry tops the list of industries in which China's State Council wants to see an acceleration in mergers and acquisitions. The article goes further to say that the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology (MIIT) is drafting specific policies on mergers due to be released later this year.

The article is right in that consolidation of this industry is much needed. There are currently more than 100 auto assemblers in China, though only the top 20 or so really really count. Still, if China is to develop a globally competitive auto industry, they will need for a lot of the smaller producers to either disappear or be consolidated into larger producers.

If the article is correct, these new policies that MIIT is working on will do something to accelerate M&A in the auto industry. If those new policies are to do anything to accelerate mergers, however, it will require a pretty drastic change in Beijing's behavior.

Ever since China's government began to take notice of its auto industry around the mid-1980s, there has been an increasing desire to make China's industry globally competitive. And part of every auto policy that has been written to date has focused on a need for consolidation. I know this because I've read all of them.

Early on in the reform era, the auto bureaucracy du jour was always well aware of how other countries' auto industries had developed. For example, they knew that, in the early part of the 20th century, the United States also had more than 100 auto companies, and that number had shrunk to about half a dozen by the late 1950s, and only three by the century's end.

As the US has, until recently, been the one market China most wanted to emulate (since the US was, and still is, the world's largest economy), it seems to have made sense to auto planners in Beijing that the route taken by America's "Big 3" should soon be taken by China's largest auto companies.

And until now no matter how strongly the government has stressed the need for consolidation, implementation has always included allowing the market to determine the outcomes -- just as it presumably did in the US. Yet, while there have been a handful of mergers over the past decade (First Auto-Tianjin, Shanghai-Nanjing, Guangzhou-Changfeng, Chang'an-Hafei-Changhe), there have been nowhere nearly the number one might expect if the market were truly determining the outcomes.

Many of China's smallest auto companies continue to soldier on, year-after-year, cranking out a handful of cars. In a true market economy, these would
never have survived on their own, yet in China, they do. Why? Because their local governments want them to. They employ people, they pay taxes, and they also very likely give local leaders a few vehicles to drive around every year.

If not for local governments who stand in the way, the market would have indeed taken care of China's fragmented auto industry. There is no lack of desire on the part of the CEOs of large auto groups to buy others; there's simply no desire on the part of small company CEOs and local governments to sell.

So these new policies that MIIT introduces later this year will probably not look much different from those we have seen to date. Beijing will very likely still want the strongest companies to take over the weaker ones. The question is whether Beijing will put any teeth in its policy. Will it change the incentive structures faced by local governments that keep them from supporting consolidation where necessary?

The tradeoffs are pretty clear. The status quo (little consolidation) helps to prevent social instability that could result from closure or merger of less efficient players. On the other hand, significant consolidation would help China's auto industry to become more globally competitive.

Which is really more important to Beijing?