Mercedes in spotlight but Lexus looms
Mercedes-Benz hugged the headlines at the North American International Auto Show in Detroit via the Las Vegas Consumer Electronics Show (CES), while investors also liked what they saw.
The trouble is, all this publicity probably won’t be enough for Mercedes to regain its crown as leader in the U.S. luxury market, which BMW snatched back in 2014. And even BMW might be upstaged next year, as Toyota subsidiary Lexus storms into the reckoning.
Mercedes-Benz showed the “Luxury in Motion” autonomous concept vehicle at the CES and the press conference grabbed attention in newspapers and on TV across the world. At the Detroit show, Mercedes launched the GLE SUV to more modest acclaim.
“I expect a very good year for Mercedes-Benz,” said Daimler CEO Dieter Zetsche in Las Vegas, and investment banks agree, although some see a toughening environment too.
“Mercedes has a full pipeline of upcoming new and recently launched models and its product and brand perception has materially improved over the last year,” said Evercore ISI analyst Arndt Ellinghorst.
“The new C Class is still in ramp-up mode and later this year the new E Class will be presented. Mercedes brand sold about 12.4 percent more cars last year and reported an estimated 8.0 percent margin. We believe there is more room for growth and operational leverage left for this year,” Ellinghorst said.
Morgan Stanley analyst Harald Hendrikse agrees, saying the bottom line will improve again in 2015, although there’s a risk this will slow towards the end of the year.
Hendrikse said of the increase in global sales to 1.74 million in 2014 from the previous year’s 1.56 million, Asian accounted for 100,000, Europe 50,000 and NAFTA 20,000.
“The CLA and GLA were responsible for half the growth, with a stellar jump also of 45,000 S Class sales to 117,000. For 2015, we forecast continued growth of a further 120,000 to 1.86 million, up seven percent, on continued growth from the GLA and from deliveries of the new C Class,” Hendrikse said.
Last year in the U.S. Mercedes sold 330,391 vehicles, up six percent, lagging BMW’s 10 percent better 339,738. In third place was Lexus with 311,389, up 14 percent.
Hendrikse said the biggest factor behind Mercedes performance last year was the success of the S class, with sales jumping from 72,000 to 117,000.
“We believe this 45,000 jump in S Class sales alone may have driven Mercedes revenues up by over 4 billion euros ($4.6 billion), or half our forecast revenue growth for Mercedes. Assuming at least an average gross margin of 30 percent, the impact on Mercedes EBIT (earnings before interest and tax) from S Class alone could easily top 1 billion euros ($1.2 billion),” he said.
This might be too good to be true to last until the end of 2015.
“Daimler (which owns Mercedes) continues to catch up on growth with peers. Less obvious is the absolute profitability of that growth. With consensus forecasting continued EBIT margin improvement at Mercedes, but without incremental S Class margins, and with all growth from lower (priced) models, we think EBIT margin improvement may slow sharply in 2015,” Hendrikse said.
Zetsche was interviewed at the CES by the Wall Street Journal and was very bullish about 2015.
“Our momentum is building very strongly around the globe. The brand is becoming stronger and more relevant to young people. We are now the fastest-growing premium brand. And we intend to continue that way,” Zetsche said.
Meanwhile both Mercedes and BMW are likely to be U.S. also-rans in 2015.
“Following the introduction of the new (Lexus) NX and the replacement of the RX, we see Lexus taking the number one spot in the U.S. premium car market by the end of this year,” said Evercore ISI in a report.