DETROIT — During the presidential campaign, Donald Trump took several shots at Ford. Now, while we wait for the 45th President to be inaugurated, the tweeter-in-chief has set his 140-character sights on General Motors and Toyota.
Fiat Chrysler Automobiles has tried to dodge The Donald’s ire by announcing $1-billion investment in US plants to built Jeeps and pickups. (It was more of a re-announcement, as the automotive media knew its was coming, but FCA wisely released the news as the 2017 Detroit auto show was kicking off.)
However, if you think Trump has the auto industry shivering on its radials, you’d be wrong.
In fact, based on my conversations with numerous industry executives at the Detroit show this week, a consensus is emerging: Trump could be great for the car business.
No one is exactly dancing a Trump jig, but carmakers are starting to digest Trumponomics in its gestational form — and liking what they see.
There are four key issues that the Trump administration will address that the industry has a stake in: jobs, taxes, sales, and regulations.
Both the domestic “Big Three” automakers — GM, Ford, FCA — and the so-called foreign transplants — Toyota, Honda, Nissan, Mercedes, BMW, VW — employ huge numbers of American workers, and their supply chains employ many more. They might all like to hire in the future, but at the moment, with the US sales market running at peak levels and the car companies maxing out their existing manufacturing capacity, nobody wants to build new plants in the US for fear of having to idle them when a sales downturn arrives.
Trump has mainly been complaining about building new plants in Mexico to take advantage of lower labour costs to build the small cars that Americans increasingly don’t want to buy. Carmakers can’t make much money on these vehicles. “The profit margins aren’t very good,” Ford CFO Bob Shanks told Business Insider.
Building a plant or shifting production around is a difficult business decision for an automaker — in the case of a factory, it’s also a very expensive one — so the industry is taking a wait-and-see approach to what Trump’s policies might mean. But various executives brought up the question of Canada this week. Our neighbour to the north is also in NAFTA, and many major carmakers operate plants there. It’s a looming issue.
There are really two critical tax questions that the industry is grappling with. It’s head-warping because on one side Trump is promising a corporate tax break that would be great for the automakers’ bottom lines and balance sheets. But on the other hand, there’s a threatened border tax for importing foreign-made vehicles and perhaps even foreign-made vehicles components into the US.
The specifics of a border tax could be very tricky. If 100% of your car is made in Mexico, you could be liable for the full border tax. But what if only the engine or transmission is imported? Ironically, for a GOP-dominated government opposed to government intervention in the markets, a border tax could create an unwieldy federal monster.
But if it does come to pass — and I’m hearing that it probably will — automakers are taking solace in the washout the corporate tax cut might provide.
US auto sales in 2016 unexpectedly beat 2015’s record of 17.5 million by about 50,000 vehicles. There was plenty of talk about that record being “bought” with incentives, but average transaction prices were also up, and the mix for many automakers was highly profitable trucks and SUVs. Ford Chairman Bill Ford said that’s a great market, GM Vice-President Mark Reuss said that’s a great market, and I’m pretty sure that I’d have to work hard to find anyone in the industry who’s unhappy about sales at the level.
The business has been girding itself for a sales plateau leading into a downturn — that’s the nature of the cyclical auto market — but the general view is that what’s been widely described here in Detroit as Trump’s “pro-growth” policies could extend the sales boom.
Reuss explained to me, for example, that there’s aren’t any major economic events on the horizon that could send sales into a spiral. And in any case, he confirmed that GM can still break even in a downturn so severe that it would reduce annual sales to 11 million.
Surging consumer confidence, combined with an average American vehicle age of over 11 years, could keep the sales boom going for another 12 months, setting up another record-breaking year in 2017.
“But what about rising interest rates?” you might ask. Won’t the Federal Reserve hike to keep inflation in check?
The auto industry isn’t worried. It figures that more growth means more money in consumers’ pockets, offsetting any auto-loans costs.
This is a big one. No one is sure yet, but there’s an expectation emerging in the auto business that Trump will instruct the EPA to roll back Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) standards, something the industry has been lobbying for.
“We need a science-based approach to what we’re supposed to do,” Ford’s Chief Technology Officer Raj Nair said, echoing comments made earlier by CEO Mark Fields.
Fields has been vocal about Ford’s disappointment at what he called the “short-circuiting” of a mid-term CAFE review — a check-in on how the automakers are doing at hitting a 54.5 mpg goal by 2025. Last year, the government locked in that goal, and the auto industry as a whole thinks it was left out of the process.
“The best people to ask are the people who make and sell the technology,” Nair said. “It was disappointing that it was short-circuited.”
On balance, the auto industry thinks that Trump will be good for business. A few major leaders continue to grapple with what Trumpism means. Renault-Nissan CEO Carlos Ghosn held a roundtable with reporters in Detroit and struggled to interpret Trump’s “America First” campaign slogan in terms of the global automaker’s business.
It’s about “American jobs,” Ghosn said.
“And if there’s free trade,” he added, addressing questions about NAFTA, “it should be good for us.” And by “us” he meant Trump’s America.
I didn’t come to Detroit expecting that there would be anyone declaring opposition to Trump; it became clear in the past few weeks that the industry was liking what it was hearing coming from Trump Tower, the nasty tweets notwithstanding.
What surprised me wasn’t the unified point of view — it was the emerging spirit of optimism around Trump and the car business.