Are America's Big Three Automakers Leaving Europe Fast Enough?

By : Subscribe to Moran's | December 15, 2012 6:19 AM IST

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New-car sales in Europe fell for the 14th consecutive month to a 19-year low in November. Suffering because of their high exposure to the crisis-plagued continent, American manufacturers Ford Motor Co. (NYSE:F) and General Motors Co. (NYSE:GM) both saw double-digit declines in sales there. And Italian competitor Fiat SpA (BIT:F), owner of a 58.5 percent stake in Chrysler Group LLC, posted the biggest drop, as a recession in euro-zone countries hurt demand.

All three carmakers have announced plans to downsize their presence in Europe. But the question is: Are they pulling out of the region fast enough?

A European Automobile Manufacturers’ Association report shows new passenger-car registrations in the European Union in November fell 10.3 percent from a year ago and that they are down 7.6 percent for the first 11 months of this year.

The automotive industry is particularly sensitive to economic headwinds. Gross domestic product in the euro zone shrank 4.4 percent in 2009, while it grew just 2 percent in 2010 and only 1.4 percent in 2011. For this year, Eurostat's first reading of GDP for the three months ended in September showed a contraction of 0.1 percent in the euro zone, after a decline of 0.2 percent in the second quarter -- confirming the 17-nation currency area is back in recession for the first time since 2009.

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The recession also pushed the unemployment rate up in the currency bloc to 11.7 percent in October, the highest level since the introduction of the euro in 1999.

The endless sovereign-debt crisis and widespread regional recession have sapped the buying power of middle-class Europeans.

Detroit-based General Motors’ sales in Europe last month fell 13 percent, to 75,876 vehicles, led by a 20 percent drop for the Chevrolet brand. Dearborn, Mich.-based Ford’s sales in Europe fell 10 percent to 72,585 cars. And Turin-based Fiat saw sales in the area plunge 13 percent, to 59,152 cars, narrowing its market share to 6.1 percent from 6.3 percent.

Automakers in Europe are in various stages of cutting capacity and jobs to stem the flow of red ink at their European operations.

Ford -- Ford reported a flat profit in the third quarter, as heavy losses in Europe continued to undercut its strong performance in the North American market.

The second-largest American automaker said, before tax, it lost $468 million in the region, compared to a pretax loss of $306 million in the third quarter of last year. Ford has lost more than $1 billion in Europe so far this year and has said it expects its full-year loss to top $1.5 billion.

In October, the company said it would close three factories in the region and cut 5,700 jobs.

Shares of Ford ended Friday's session down 1.51 percent to $11.10 apiece.

General Motors -- For the third quarter, the largest American automaker reported profits in every region of the world except Europe. The company said its pretax loss in the region was $478 million, compared with $292 million a year ago. The company now expects full-year losses in Europe of $1.5 billion to $1.8 billion.

During the past dozen years, General Motors has lost about $16 billion in Europe. On Monday, the company's German subsidiary Opel said it will end car production at its Bochum manufacturing plant in Germany in 2016 after production of its Zafira Tourer car ends.

Shares of General Motors fell 2.03 percent to $24.61 each on Friday.

Fiat -- Italian company Fiat, which expects to lose €700 million ($919 million) in Europe this year, said on Dec. 7 it will cut 1,500 jobs at its Polish operations to slash production. This is Fiat's biggest cutback since closing a plant in its home country last year.

Fiat said it would also reduce the number of daily shifts to two from three at its Polish factory. Production at the Tychy plant is expected to fall below 350,000 units this year and below 300,000 units next year, the company said.

"From a peak of 16 million vehicles in 2007, the European auto market has recorded consistent annual declines, and, for 2012, sales are expected to fall to between 12.5 million and 12.8 million vehicles," Fiat said in a statement. "The market segment for cars produced at Tychy, the A segment, has been the worst affected." The auto industry describes subcompact cars including the Fiat 500 and Ka as A segment vehicles.

Shares of Fiat fell 1.94 percent to €3.63 apiece on Friday.

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