August 7, 2022

At Frankfurt Show, Automakers Are Optimistic

But like his peers at the Frankfurt Motor Show on Tuesday, the ebullient Mr. Reithofer was remarkably sanguine. With the exception of Spain, Greece and several other European countries, Mr. Reithofer said in an interview, BMW has not seen any sign that the sovereign debt crisis is hurting car sales.

“If you ask me, am I worried about the whole political situation, naturally I’m worried,” Mr. Reithofer said. But he added that BMW was still recording sales gains even in the slow-growing United States market and continued to expect worldwide sales of 1.6 million vehicles this year, an increase of more than 10 percent from 2010.

Just in case, though, BMW and other carmakers are preparing for the worst. Memories of the 2009 recession are still vivid, and they learned that they must be able to cut costs and production if a downturn comes.

“We learned from the last crisis how important it is to adjust quickly,” Mr. Reithofer said.

The Frankfurt exhibition grounds, where the motor show will open to the public on Thursday and continue through Sept. 25, seems to exist in a different dimension than the crisis-addled banking industry just outside the gates.

Signs of European economic stagnation notwithstanding, car companies spent huge sums to show off their new products in Frankfurt. Audi, the premium car unit of Volkswagen, erected an entirely new building to house its display, while Daimler’s Mercedes unit spent more than 1 million euros ($1.36 million) just on a musical stage presentation to accompany the introduction of a hydrogen-powered concept car.

“If you look at the pure numbers, you could say, ‘What crisis?’ ” said Peter Schwarzenbauer, a member of the Audi management board who is responsible for sales. “In our numbers, you don’t see it.”

Even in the United States, Audi sales increased 15 percent through August compared with those in the period a year earlier, in part because the company upgraded its dealer network. With a wide array of new models coming to market, Mr. Schwarzenbauer said, “even if the situation gets a little bumpier we still expect growth.”

Dieter Zetsche, the chief executive of Daimler, said the company’s expectation was that the global economy would slow but not reverse and that emerging markets would continue to act as a locomotive for the auto industry. He acknowledged that he could be wrong. “Nobody has a crystal ball,” Mr. Zetsche said.

“Our customer base still has the wherewithal to afford a Mercedes if they want to buy one,” Mr. Zetsche told a small group of reporters. “So far nobody is seeing a direct impact.”

Even volume carmakers, whose customers would normally suffer the most in a downturn, remain optimistic. Nick Reilly, the president of General Motors Europe, said that, so far, he was not seeing any decline in sales in Europe.

“We are not seeing yet the lack of confidence you would expect,” he said.

But if a slump comes, Mr. Reilly said, Opel, which is owned by G.M., is prepared to cut production and avoid the losses that nearly sank the company in 2009.

The company has cut overall capacity since the 2009 crisis, and worked out agreements with workers that would allow Opel to quickly reduce production.

Likewise, BMW learned lessons from the last crisis and has taken steps to become less vulnerable. It is leasing fewer cars and instead encouraging buyers to finance their purchases. That strategy is intended to avoid getting stuck with tens of thousands of used cars when leasing contracts expire, as happened a few years ago.

BMW has also made production more efficient, Mr. Reithofer said. The redesigned 1 Series compact, which was presented in Frankfurt, cost less to produce than its predecessor, he said, and the same will be true of the new 3 Series due out next year.

The executives are aware of economic indicators providing warning signs of slower European growth. But their own early indicators have not yet reacted, Mr. Schwarzenbauer of Audi said. Corporate fleet and used-car markets, which typically react first in a slump, continue to hold up, he said. Dealers, who are the first to sense a shift in customer moods, also remain upbeat. Growth in China has slowed down, but continues to be robust, Mr. Schwarzenbauer and other executives said.

It is possible, of course, that the carmakers are simply in a state of denial. The world still has more car factories than demand requires, a function of the reluctance by political leaders to allow such large employers to close. Mr. Reilly of G.M. estimated the overcapacity in Europe at 15 percent to 25 percent.

The executives also seem to be concerned about the political drift in Europe, and the slow pace with which a new aid package for Greece, approved in July, is being put in place.

Mr. Zetsche, who as one of Germany’s leading executives has the ear of political leaders, indicated that he had expressed his concern. Mr. Reithofer of BMW was among executives who took out ads in German newspapers this year calling for more decisive action.

The carmakers do not want to see the euro fail, a worst case that would create a crisis for them as well. “I can’t imagine another fragmented European economy,” Mr. Reithofer said.

Saving the euro “might cost us money, but it’s worth it,” he said. “The euro will survive — we have to make it survive.”

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