Howes: Possible Chinese bid for FCA fuels imagination

Daniel Howes
The Detroit News

Fiat Chrysler Automobiles NV’s campaign to sell itself to American and German rivals is finding no takers. But China’s booming auto sector is something else, judging by a reported Chinese rival bid for Detroit’s No. 3 automaker.

Don’t be surprised if such offers keep coming as Chinese players seek a path into the world’s richest car and truck market — and the fast-developing epicenter of mobility and autonomy. What better way to get there than to buy the transatlantic FCA, effectively for sale the past couple of years?

China’s Geely Holding Group did just that in 2010, when it acquired Volvo Cars Ltd. from Ford Motor Co. Armed with Volvo’s global industry cred and a distribution network to match, Geely doubled down on the brand’s Swedish heritage and global reputation for safety, blond wood and now a push for electrification and autonomy.

In theory, FCA would deliver any foreign buyer a turn-key North American manufacturing and distribution network; solid engineering capability firmly planted in metropolitan Detroit; regulatory expertise in Washington; Ram pickups and the legendary Jeep brand, forged in World War II and then shaped into an American icon.

And the Chinese could own it? More than a theoretical possibility, that, whatever the politics. China’s auto sector is hunting for targets outside its home country at precisely the same time Detroit’s three are taking increasingly radical steps to bolster share values and returns for investors.

It’s not clear which Chinese automaker may have bid for FCA, as Automotive News reported Monday. And FCA refused to comment, though the automaker has not denied that it continues to look for a partner — domestic or foreign.

“It’s potentially much broader than the Chinese,” says David Cole, chairman emeritus of the Ann Arbor-based Center for Automotive Research. “My gut feel is someone steps up and buys” FCA. “They’re a publicly traded company.”

General Motors Co. is exiting key global markets, including ending its 90-year presence in Europe, even as it mulls axing models. Ford is ending production in Australia, shipping assembly of its next-generation Focus to China, and signaling that it may soon exit traditional segments not generating acceptable returns.

And FCA? In the absence of the blockbuster mergers Sergio Marchionne sought with GM, Renault-Nissan and Volkswagen AG before its global diesel scandal effectively torpedoed merger hopes, the FCA CEO is practicing what he preached in his 2015 “Confessions of a Capital Junkie.”

He exited car production in the United States, converting the vacated assembly lines to building higher-margin trucks and SUVs. He delivered, finally, the long-promised reintroduction of higher-margin Alfa Romeo to the U.S. market. He’s moving ahead with plans to expand the enviable Jeep portfolio.

All of it, and more, is designed to exploit the new American love affair with SUVs of all shapes and sizes, powered partly by lower fuel prices. It’s designed to bolster profit margins and build credibility with wary investors, still nursing memories of bailout, bankruptcy and government strong-arming.

Most of all, Marchionne’s makeover is designed to make the Italian-American automaker more attractive to would-be acquirers. A leaner, less indebted and more profitable FCA would give the controlling Agnelli family and its Exor SpA holding company the exit path it craves from the comparatively lower margins of the volume car and truck business.

Easy, right? In the Age of Globalism, maybe, when deals like the fusion of Germany’s Daimler-Benz AG with the old Chrysler Corp. 20 years ago heralded an automotive transnationalism that purported to marry the strengths of both companies and both countries in a sum greater than their parts.

But not in the Age of Trump and resurgent nationalism, from Washington and London to Paris and Berlin. Not amid the nuclear belly-bumping between President Donald Trump and North Korea’s Kim Jong Un, or brewing trade conflict with China. Not against the inescapable fact that American taxpayers rescued FCA from collapse just eight years ago.

And not in the crass calculation of presidential politics. Trump owes his presidency to voters in the auto-producing industrial Midwest — to Michigan and Ohio, Indiana and Wisconsin, states scarred by the brutal restructuring and bankruptcies associated with the global financial meltdown.

How, exactly, would an FCA-to-China scenario play in the fever swamps of social media? Having used taxpayer dollars to rescue Chrysler and essentially give it to Marchionne and Fiat SpA? Having watched the rebuilding, the reinvestment in cities like Detroit and Sterling Heights, Warren and Toledo?

Contemplating a sale of FCA to a Chinese player partly doing the bidding of its government in Beijing would not play well in Trump country. Not among FCA dealers, who could easily envision being asked to add Chinese-brand vehicles to showrooms bursting with American automotive testosterone. Not in the United Auto Workers’ Solidarity House, or Congress or the White House.

Which doesn’t mean it won’t ever happen. Capital is mobile, and capital seeks higher returns — even at the risk of conflict once thought unthinkable. Conditions change.

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Daniel Howes’ column runs Tuesdays, Thursdays and Fridays. Follow him on Twitter @DanielHowes_TDN, listen to his Saturday podcasts, or catch him 3 and 10 p.m. Thursdays on Michigan Radio’s “Stateside,” 91.7 FM.