September 4, 2018 / 6:10 AM / in 2 months

Automakers fret as China clamps down on capacity, seeks consolidation

BEIJING (Reuters) - Some automakers in China are alarmed by proposed government restrictions on investing in new manufacturing capacity and the ways in which Beijing is trying to trigger consolidation of the country’s flabby auto industry through mergers and strategic cooperation.

FILE PHOTO: Traffic congestion is pictured in Shanghai, China, April 19, 2017. REUTERS/Joe White/File Photo

China’s National Development and Reform Commission, seeking to address mounting excess auto manufacturing capacity, wants to restrict ways automakers can invest in new capacity to manufacture traditional gasoline-fueled cars as well as electric battery cars, according to a draft of the policy which has made public.

To be allowed to invest in greenfield developments such as new factories, automakers would need to have healthy, above-industry-average capacity utilization and R&D investment, and a commitment to green cars and exports, among other conditions.

Industry players are alarmed by the prospects because they say very few automakers would be able to meet the conditions fully if the proposed policy took effect as drafted.

“It basically means, more or less, no more new factories. The government wants us to use existing idled factories to expand capacity instead,” a China-based executive with a global automaker said.

The proposed new rules come at a time when some automakers, especially Toyota Motor Co (7203.T), Nissan Motor Co (7201.T) and Geely [GEELY.UL] are growing their market share in China and are keen to investment in new capacity.

NDRC wants to prevent the excess capacity problem from becoming a crisis similar to those that have previously hit a score of other industries in China – from solar panels to steel to ship building, according to the four sources.

By making it difficult for automakers to install new capacity, China’s industrial policymakers want to trigger an industry consolidation, say the sources - two industry officials and two executives from automakers.

NDRC did not respond to a request for comment.

BLOATED INDUSTRY

According to a 2017 study by PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC), a third of China’s overall capacity in 2018, or 14 million of the 42.8 million vehicles a year capacity, is estimated to be idled.

China’s auto industry has grown rapidly, helped by generous subsidies and funds from the central government, as well as provinces trying to accelerate development and competing to create jobs.

PwC says China now has some 80 automotive groups and more than 180 vehicle assemblers but many have not had meaningful output or sales for years. Now, with growth set to slow and a slew of startups racing to add capacity to make electric cars, less successful producers face being squeezed out of the market.

The proposed policy, which NDRC published for public comment in July, says the agency wants to “encourage enterprises to carry out merging, reconstruction and strategic cooperation through equity investment and other modes, so as to... organize production jointly and enhance industrial concentration.”

The industry largely supports the “spirit” of the new policy but wants to see the NDRC dial down the restrictions, according to the four individuals who declined to be named because of the sensitivity of the matter.

“Our biggest concern is that the new policy, as proposed, places obstacles to a healthy, spontaneous development of the industry,” said one of the two industry officials representing foreign automakers. “It deprives us of the discretion we have in freely formulating business plans and invest without interventions.”

NDRC indicated over the weekend it may modify the proposed rules but remained insistent on policing investments.

At an industry conference in Tianjin on Saturday, Nian Yong, head of NDRC’s Department of Industry Coordination, said the agency will strictly prevent “haphazard investment and redundant development” in the auto industry, apparently referring to the proposed rules. Nian said Beijing will soon publish and implement the new rules, without elaborating.

BOOM AND BUST

Xu Haidong, an assistant secretary general of industry body the China Association of Automobile Manufacturers (CAAM) said capital was flowing into the sector on expectations of long-term growth.

“But given the all-known historical pattern of booms and busts, the state should prevent investment from losing control, prevent blind construction, disorderly development, and promote high-quality development,” Xu told Reuters.

There is, however, a view among some industry officials that no matter how severely NDRC restricts investments for new manufacturing capacity, the decree might be disregarded given fierce competition among different cities and provinces chasing investments.

“Provincial governments will prioritize attracting new investments as in the process will find ways to ignore NDRC’s rules,” one of the two industry officials said.

According to the proposed rules, any automaker planning to invest in new capacity for gasoline fueled cars and hybrids would have to clear five conditions, including the utilization rates for its manufacturing capacity being above industry average, and its output of so-called new-energy vehicles being above industry average.

Draft conditions also include hard-to-meet thresholds for R&D spending, export sales and vehicle production capacity utilization rates in provinces where new plants are proposed, including for EVs.

Already, there is evidence that automakers are being asked to help cut back excess capacity.

When Nissan decided to boost its China capacity by 40 percent to as many as 2.1 million vehicles a year by 2021, it said nearly half the new capacity would come from two existing assembly plants, even though it is looking to build a new plant in Wuhan.

Toyota, which is looking to boost its China capacity over the next few years by 240,000 vehicles a year, or by about 20 percent, plans to add extra capacity to its existing manufacturing facilities in Tianjin and the southern China city of Guangzhou. Toyota declined to comment.

One industry executive said they understood the government wanted to maximize existing capacity, but the reality was “much more complicated”.

“Companies and executives have egos, but most important, they want to invest the way they want to – freely and without constraints,” the executive said.

Reporting By Norihiko Shirouzu and Yilei Sun in Beijing. Editing by Lincoln Feast.

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