FlyTitle: Carmakers in trouble

How to save a sputtering industry

如何拯救一个熄火的行业

经济学人双语版-改装上路 Pimp the ride

EVEN BEFORE the recession, investors were deeply pessimistic about the car industry. Sitting on $1.3trn-worth of legacy investments in factories that rely on a technology that ought to become obsolete—the internal-combustion engine—the likes of Ford, Renault and Volkswagen don’t exactly look well positioned for the 21st century. Now, with car sales collapsing, a dinosaur business that employs 10m people directly faces a moment of truth. Long synonymous with hubris and the inept allocation of capital, it needs to look to the future.

在本次衰退发生之前,投资者就已经对汽车产业深感悲观。福特、雷诺和大众等大型汽车制造商守着工厂里价值高达1.3万亿美元的老旧投资迟迟没有行动,而这些投资倚赖的内燃机技术快要被淘汰了。看起来它们并没有完全为21世纪做好准备。如今随着汽车销量暴跌,这个雇用了一千万人的庞大行业要直面它的关键时刻。长久以来它已经成了傲慢和资本不当配置的代名词。现在,它需要放眼未来。

Executives say they are better placed today than in 2008-09, when General Motors and others received bail-outs. Most firms have more cash and bigger margins. But this logic gets them only so far. Production in Europe and North America is now 50-70% lower than a year ago. Car firms have high fixed costs, so when they run below capacity they lose money fast. The top eight Western carmakers could burn over $50bn of cash this quarter, reckons Jefferies, a bank. At that rate, they may run out of money by the end of the year.

高管们表示,与2008年至2009年通用汽车等公司接受纾困时相比,他们现在的处境要好一些。大多数公司有着更多现金和更丰厚的利润。但也仅此而已了。欧洲和北美的产量比一年前下降了50%至70%。汽车制造商的固定成本很高,所以在非满负荷运行时就是在快速亏钱。投行杰富瑞(Jefferies)估计,西方最大的八家汽车制造商本季度可能要烧掉500多亿美元现金。照这个速度,到今年年底它们可能就会耗尽资金。

There are other dangers. As recession bites, people may default on car loans, many of which are owed to carmakers’ finance arms. The value of second-hand cars is dropping, harming these finance arms through their leasing operations. There may be a permanent fall in commuting, as more people work from home—road-passenger numbers in China are still 57% below their pre-covid level. This prospect helps explain why oil prices have collapsed. Investors are jumpy—on April 17th Ford raised $8bn of debt at painful interest rates of 8.5-9.6%. The only firm that commands their confidence is Tesla, an electric-car specialist, whose shares are up by 64% this year.

还有其他危险。受衰退的影响,人们可能会拖欠汽车贷款,其中许多是由汽车制造商的金融部门发放的。二手车的价值正在下降,这也损害了这些经营租赁业务的金融部门。随着更多人在家工作,通勤规模的缩小可能会是永久性的,比如中国的道路旅客数量就仍比疫情之前低57%。这种前景有助于解释油价为何暴跌。投资者焦虑不安,以至于福特在4月17日要以高到“肉痛”的利率——8.5%至9.6%——发行80亿美元的债券。唯一能赢得投资者信心的公司是专做电动汽车的特斯拉,它的股票今年上涨了64%。

Given its carbon footprint, isn’t there an argument for the creative destruction of the car industry? If only it were that simple. Millions of jobs are at risk and the big firms account for about 60% of the industry’s investment, a rising share of which is, belatedly, going into green technologies. Adaptation would be far preferable to extinction. And yet there is a risk that government aid ossifies car firms before they have modernised. State “cash for clunkers” subsidies—which are on the menu in Germany—could encourage consumers to buy dirty, internal-combustion-engine cars. On March 31st America watered down emissions standards in order to help Detroit. Subsidies for idling workers help in the short run, but if they go on for long they risk preventing firms from shifting resources from old to new technologies.

考虑到它留下的碳足迹,难道没有理由对汽车产业展开创造性破坏?要是事情有那么简单就好了。数以百万计的工作岗位岌岌可危,而大企业占到这个行业投资的60%左右,其中越来越高的比例正投入到绿色技术上——尽管已经有些晚了。调适要比灭绝好得多。然而,政府的援助可能会让汽车制造商在完成现代化改造之前就陷入僵化。德国正在考虑的“旧车换现金”计划可能会鼓励消费者购买污染严重的内燃机汽车。3月31日,为援助底特律,美国放宽了排放标准。补贴待岗工人在短期内会有帮助,但如果补贴持续太久,就有可能阻碍企业把资源从老旧的技术转移到新技术上。

The industry should take control of its own fate. Car firms need to be pioneers in operating factories under new health protocols, from redesigning the choreography of assembly lines to providing health tests for workers. Big Western firms are starting to re-open some plants. This won’t be lucrative, but it will stem short-term losses.

汽车产业应该掌控自己的命运。从重新设计装配线布局到为工人提供健康测试,汽车制造商需要成为在新的健康规程下运营工厂的先行者。西方的大公司已经开始重新启动一些工厂。这不会带来丰厚的利润,但会减少短期亏损。

Firms should also avoid slashing investment indiscriminately, as they did in 2007-09 when capital spending dropped by 29%. Most car firms have two parts, a vast legacy operation and a small, loss-making, fast-growing one making hybrid and fully electric cars. The danger is that they cut spending on the new bit, slowing the development of battery technologies and the launch of new electric models. Better to pare dividends, loss-making foreign adventures and legacy investments.

汽车制造商也应该避免不加选择地大幅削减投资,就像它们在2007年到2009年所做的那样,当时资本支出下降了29%。大多数汽车制造商由两部分组成:一个庞大的传统业务,以及一个规模小、亏损,但增长迅速的混合动力和纯电动车业务。危险在于它们选择削减在新业务上的开支,减缓研发电池技术和推出新电动车型。最好是削减股息、亏损的海外业务和传统业务投资。

The final priority is consolidation. Too many mid-sized carmakers are clinging to their global aspirations, despite a number of mergers in recent years, such as Geely’s purchase of Volvo and Fiat Chrysler’s planned union with PSA (Fiat’s biggest shareholder owns shares in the parent company of The Economist). The world still has more than 1,000 factories making legacy cars. Renault and Nissan continue their halfway house of an alliance, which brings more complexity than synergy. Adapt, invest in the future and join forces. That is the way to a viable car industry—for the climate, workers and investors, too.■

最后一个重点是整合。尽管近年来发生了不少并购,例如吉利收购沃尔沃、菲亚特克莱斯勒计划与PSA结盟(菲亚特最大的股东持有《经济学人》母公司的股份),但仍有太多中型制造商执着于自己的全球抱负。世界上还有一千多家制造传统汽车的工厂。雷诺和日产维持着一个有限合作的联盟,这带来的复杂性超过了协同作用。适应变化,投资未来,联合力量——这是汽车产业的生存之路,从气候、工人和投资者的角度去看都是如此。