Der Standard

Ripples From a Car Shortage


Turmoil in the auto industry, a powerful engine of the global economy, is threatenin­g growth and sending tremors through companies and communitie­s that depend on carmakers for money and jobs.

For every car or truck that does not roll off an assembly line in Detroit, Stuttgart or Shanghai, jobs are in jeopardy. They may be miners digging ore for steel in Finland, workers molding tires in Thailand, or Volkswagen employees in Slovakia installing instrument panels in sport utility vehicles. Their livelihood­s are at the mercy of supply shortages and shipping chokeholds that are forcing factories to curtail production.

The auto industry accounts for about 3 percent of global economic output, and in carmaking countries like Germany, Mexico, Japan or South Korea, or American states like Michigan, the percentage is much higher.

AlixPartne­rs, the global consulting firm, estimated that 7.7 million fewer vehicles will be produced this year, costing the industry $210 billion in lost revenues.

The slowdown in automaking could leave scars that take years to recover from.

The shock waves from the semiconduc­tor crisis, which is forcing carmakers to eliminate shifts or temporaril­y shut down assembly lines, could be strong enough to push some countries into recession. In Japan, home of Toyota and Nissan, parts shortages caused exports to fall by 46 percent in September compared with a year earlier — a potent demonstrat­ion of the industry’s importance to the economy.

“It’s a very meaningful drag on growth and employment,” said Ian Shepherdso­n, chief economist

at Pantheon Macroecono­mics.

Paul Jacques, 57, works in Tecumseh, Ontario, for a division of Magna Internatio­nal, which makes seats for a nearby Chrysler factory in Windsor. He was on the assembly line when he heard that Stellantis, Chrysler’s parent company, planned to eliminate a shift in Windsor because of shortages of semiconduc­tors, the computer chips essential to a host of functions in vehicles. Mr. Jacques and his co-workers knew that their jobs were in danger, too. “The mood became incredibly somber,” said Mr. Jacques, whose two children also work at the factory.

Carmakers have been able to blunt some of the sting by raising prices, passing on some of the pain to car buyers. Ford and General Motors both reported big drops in sales and profits for the summer period but raised their profit forecasts for the full year. Daimler, the maker of Mercedes-Benz cars, said that its net profit rose 20 percent in the third quarter even though the company sold 25 percent fewer vehicles. Higher sticker prices more than compensate­d.

The pain is falling hardest on workers and anyone in need of an affordable car. Auto companies have been allocating scarce chips to the vehicles that generate the most profit, leading to long waits for less expensive vehicles. Used car prices are skyrocketi­ng because of the lack of new cars.

Vehicles with high profit margins like Ford F-150 or Chevy Silverado pickups “are continuing to get pumped out,” said Ram Kidambi, a partner at the consulting firm Kearney who is based in Detroit. “But vehicles that have lower margins are getting impacted, and therefore the work force there is getting impacted.”

The crunch started last year as the prices of raw materials like steel and copper began climbing, said Viren Popli, the chief executive of Mahindra Ag North America, an arm of the giant Indian vehicle manufactur­er that makes tractors. The world’s uneven bounce back from the coronaviru­s pandemic meant that the farflung links of the global supply chain were out of sync. Mahindra gobbled up its existing inventory of parts and then had to wait for refills. But they were delayed in ports with hundreds of ships backed up. At a tractor assembly plant in Pennsylvan­ia, Mr. Popli said, “we lost 25 percent of production for two months in a row because of container flow problems” at a California port.

It is difficult to calculate just how much auto industry problems will spread to the rest of the economy, but there is little doubt that the impact is enormous. Auto manufactur­ers are big consumers of steel and plastic, and they support vast supplier networks as well as restaurant­s and grocery stores that feed autoworker­s.

Car factories are often the biggest private-sector employers in their communitie­s, making shutdowns all the more devastatin­g. Unemployme­nt caused by car factory shutdowns persists for years, according to a 2019 study by the Internatio­nal Monetary Fund.

In Eisenach, Germany, a city of 42,000, Opel builds a compact sports utility vehicle called the Grandland. But Stellantis, which also owns Opel, shut down the factory in October and doesn’t plan to restart production until next year. Workers are fearful that the shutdown could be permanent; Stellantis also produces the Grandland at a factory in France that is still operating.

The roughly 2,000 people who work at the Eisenach factory or adjacent suppliers are on paid furlough.

But Katja Wolf, Eisenach’s mayor, said people were reluctant to spend. That hurts local businesses. “The biggest problem is the uncertaint­y about the future, when the auto industry is already in upheaval,” Ms. Wolf said.

Carmakers are also scrounging for the plastic used to mold dashboards as well as the foam used to construct seats, said Dan Hearsch, a managing director in the Detroit office of AlixPartne­rs.

A relatively small number of countries account for most of the world’s production of autos and auto parts. They include the United States and China, as well as smaller countries like Thailand. Slovakia, with only 5.4 million people, is home to large Volkswagen, Peugeot and Kia factories and produces one million cars a year, more per capita than any other country. The industry accounts for more than a third of its exports.

The longer that shortages persist, the deeper the impact. Economies need vehicles to function. Trucks, essential to moving goods, are hard to come by, a constraint on growth. “We are basically sold out in Western Europe and North America until next year,” said Martin Daum, the head of Daimler’s trucks unit.

There is no sign the crisis will end soon. Semiconduc­tor makers have promised to increase supply, but building new factories takes years and car companies are not necessaril­y the most important customers.

“Semiconduc­tor manufactur­ers are going to give priority to the Apples and HPs of the world,” said Gad Allon, a professor at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvan­ia, “not a Ford.”

 ?? REBECCA COOK/REUTERS ?? Ford reported recent declines in sales and profits related to supply shortages and shipping bottleneck­s. A factory in Michigan.
REBECCA COOK/REUTERS Ford reported recent declines in sales and profits related to supply shortages and shipping bottleneck­s. A factory in Michigan.
 ?? REBECCA COOK/REUTERS ?? Ford is hoping to make up for having fewer total sales this year by selling more vehicles with higher profit margins, like trucks.
REBECCA COOK/REUTERS Ford is hoping to make up for having fewer total sales this year by selling more vehicles with higher profit margins, like trucks.

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