Germany's car sector set for rebound

But the strength of the recovery - and the year-end economic revival that hinges on it - is in doubt

(FILES) In this file photo taken on March 14, 2017 German carmaker Volkswagen's cars are seen at the storage facility auto tower at the company's headquarters in Wolfsburg. - The first major court case against Volkswagen over its cheating of emissions tests on 11 million diesel vehicles worldwide begins on September 10, 2018. (Photo by Odd ANDERSEN / AFP)
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The car industry is steering the German economy again.

Automotive production should pick up again this quarter after new tests choked output and brought economic growth to a standstill over the summer. But the strength of the rebound - and the year-end economic revival that hinges on it - is in doubt as car makers feel the pain of trade tensions and China’s slowdown.

With Germany accounting for almost one third of the euro-zone economy, its performance also has wider implications. Growth in the 19-nation currency bloc slowed to just 0.2 percent in the third quarter, the weakest in four years. German data for the period will be published on November 14.

The slowdown coincided with updated emissions-test procedures, which hurt sales of new models across Europe, hitting Germany’s auto sector. Industrial production shrank in the three months through September, but the Economy Ministry sees an improvement ahead.

In fact, about 440,000 new cars were produced in October compared with 310,000 in August, according to the VDA German car makers’ association.

As a consequence, German growth could bounce back to 0.8 percent, according to UniCredit’s Daniel Vernazza. JPMorgan’s Greg Fuzesi and David Mackie told clients to brace for a “big” bounce in industrial production from October onward.

Others are more prudent. HSBC economists Stefan Schilbe and Rainer Sartoris expect only a “modest recovery” after outright contraction in the third quarter. Their caution chimes with some of the noise from car makers.

It’s not just that the bottleneck from the new tests will take time to clear up. Slower growth in China may sap demand in a vital export market for Germany. For Volkswagen , China accounts for about 40 per cent of global deliveries. It’s also the biggest market for the Mercedes-Benz, BMW and Porsche luxury-car brands.


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Car-parts producers like Continental and Schaeffler cited Chinese demand when they reined in their profit outlook recently. Export orders plunged 13 per cent in October from a year earlier, according to VDA, and production expectation fell.

For now, executives are still projecting confidence. Volkswagen chief financial officer Frank Witter said October sales will still feel the pinch but should rebound after that. Daimler’s CFO Bodo Uebber made similar comments. But that hangs on the assumption China will stabilise demand after five months of dwindling sales - and possibly even introduce tax cuts for car buyers.

Volkswagen’s sales director Christian Dahlheim said the impact of trade tensions on sentiment in China “will pose challenges for the remainder of the year.” Continental warned Thursday that a deeper downturn would threaten its revenue projections.

“Looking at the external factors, the automotive industry is under pressure from various perspectives,” said Stefan Wolf, CEO of auto-part manufacturer ElringKlinger. That includes “the risk of a market decline in China which, as you know, is the major and biggest automotive market in the world.”