The car industry has featured heavily in the news in recent weeks with the announcement of plans to ban the sale of new petrol and diesel cars in the UK from 2040. Around the same time, news broke that the European Commission had commenced an investigation into potential collusive behaviour between German car makers.
Since the investigation is ongoing, it is not yet clear exactly what the firms are accused of. However, allegations first published in German magazine Der Spiegel claim that since at least the mid 1990s Volkswagen (and subsidiaries Porsche and Audi), Daimler (owner of Mercedes-Benz) and BMW met several times a year. Furthermore, it is alleged the meetings aimed to give the firms an advantage over overseas rivals by:
co-ordinating the development of their vehicles, costs, suppliers and markets for many years, at least since the Nineties, to the present day.
In particular, Der Spiegel claims that the cartel limited the size of the tanks that manufacturers install in cars to hold chemicals that reduce diesel emissions. Smaller tanks then left more room for the car’s sound system.
Limiting the size of these tanks should be seen in the context of the 2015 emissions scandal where it became clear that Volkswagen had programmed its cars to limit the use of these chemicals and cheated in emissions tests. This meant that 11 million cars worldwide produced excess emissions. Whilst other manufacturers have suggested that the cars they produced may also produce excess emissions, Volkswagen has so far been the only firm to admit to breaking the rules so explicitly. However, if the allegations in Der Spiegel turn out to be true, there will be clear evidence that the harm caused was widespread and that illegal communication between firms played a key role in facilitating this. If found guilty, substantial fines will be imposed by the European Commission and several of the firms have already announced plans to put in place measures to reduce emissions.
It is not clear how the competition authorities discovered the cartel. However, it has been suggested that incriminating documents were uncovered during a raid of Volkswagen’s offices as part of an investigation into a separate steel cartel. It seems that Volkswagen and Daimler are now cooperating with the investigation, presumably hoping to reduce the penalties they could face. It has also been reported that Daimler’s role in the investigation will have serious implications for future cooperation with BMW, including a project to develop charging sites for electric cars. It will be extremely interesting to see what the investigation uncovers and what the future ramifications for the car industry are.
European officials probe claims of huge German car cartel CNN Money, Mark Thompson (23/7/17)
Automotive corruption: German manufacturer collusion could spell bankruptcy Shout out UK, Christopher Sharp (4/8/17)
Germany’s auto industry is built on collusion Bloomberg, Leonid Bershidsky (31/7/17)
BMW reassured top staff about cartel allegations: sources Reuters, Edward Taylor (4/8/17)
- What are the consequences of the coordination between German car makers likely to have been for consumers? What about for rival car manufacturers?
- Are there circumstances in which coordination between car makers might be beneficial for society?
- How do you think the German car industry will be affected by these allegations going forward?
There’s been much talk about the UK’s economic recovery and whether or not it has begun and whether consumer spending is actually the cause. The latest sector to post positive figures is the car industry, which has seen 2013 bring in the highest level of car sales since the onset of the credit crunch.
According to the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders (SMMT), vehicle registrations in 2013 were 2.26 million, which represented a 10.8% increase from 2012. That’s not to say that we have returned to the heights seen pre-crisis levels, as sales still remain some way below their 2007 figure, but the data is certainly moving in the right direction. The key questions are: What’s the cause of this growth and what does it mean for the UK economy?
The economy has certainly turned a corner and perhaps consumer confidence is improving to reflect this. With consumes more optimistic about future economic prospects, more luxury items may well be purchased. During the height of the recession, many families may well have said ‘it will last’ or ‘we’ll make do’, referring to their old cars. However, this improved confidence, together with attractive finance deals may have been instrumental in convincing consumers to splash out. This is reflected in the data, which indicates that some 75% of car sales involve a finance package. One further explanation that has been offered by industry analysts is that the refunds individuals are receiving through mis-sold payment protection insurance are providing a nice contribution towards the deposit.
PPI payments will certainly dry up, but as long as attractive finance packages remain, car sales should continue. A key factor affecting affordability may be interest rates. When they increase, any variable rate loans will become more expensive to service and this may act to deter consumers. However, if the car industry helps to stimulate other sectors and wages begin to increase, the overall effect may be to sustain and even further the growth of this key economic sector. The following articles consider the car industry.
UK car sales hit five-year high The Guardian, Angela Monaghan (7/1/14)
UK new car sales highest since 2007, SMTT says BBC News (7/1/14)
Car sales increased by almost 11% in 2013 Sky News (7/1/14)
UK new car sales rise to highest level since 2007 Reuters, David Milliken (7/1/14)
UK car sales up 11% in 2013, topping pre-crisis levels Wall Street Journal, Matthew Curtin and Ian Walker (7/1/14)
New car sales in UK at highest since before recession Independent, Sean O’Grady (7/1/14)
UK car sales top pre-recession levels Financial Times, Henry Foy (6/1/14)
- How important is the car industry in the context of the UK economy?
- How is the UK car industry performing relative to its Western rivals?
- Would a 30% single rate of income tax be equitable?
- Explain the way in which car sales have been affected by consumer confidence.
- How have finance packages helped to stimulate car sales?
- What are the key macroeconomic variables that are likely to affect the future performance of this key sector?
For most people, buying a new car is a luxury and in times of hardship it is a luxury that many cannot afford. Sales of new cars did grow during 2010 by 1.8% compared to the previous year, although the end of the car scrappage scheme in March 2010 did see a fall in sales. Sales went from being 19.9 per cent up on 2009 in the first half of the year, to being 13.8 per cent down for the remainder of 2010. On top of this, they are predicted to fall by some 5% over the coming 12 months.
Part of the explanation of this trend is the VAT rise. While an extra 2.5% is hardly noticeable on many every day items (as we saw when VAT was reduced to 15%), it will have a much larger effect on more expensive items, such as cars.
It was expected that people thinking of buying a new car would try to beat the VAT rise and so car firms hoped for a surge in sales during December. However, this did not occur and with VAT at 20% during 2011, car prices will rise: a £15,000 car will cost an extra £320. Another contributing factor to the lower than expected sales in December was the snow. Retail sales in December collapsed by 37.5%, where as fleet sales, which are less likely to be affected by the adverse weather rose by 5.1%. Similar patterns were seen in Spain, Italy and France, but in Germany sales were up by 7% on the year from December 2009.
The good news for the UK car industry is that the second half of 2011 is expected to see growth, so there may be some recovery. Furthermore, UK-built cars have seen a rise in sales – up by 17%. Finally, as petrol prices continue to rise, it is hoped that this might encourage people to trade in their less efficient old cars for more fuel-efficient new cars. This will certainly be an industry to watch over the next few months.
Snow hits new car sales Telegraph, Graham Ruddick (8/1/11)
UK new car sales to fall in 2011, says industry BBC News (7/1/11)
Mixed end to the year for European car sales Independent (7/1/11)
Car sales set to stall? Daily Mirror, Clinton Manning (8/1/11)
UK new car sales rose 1.8pc in 2010 despite end of scrappage scheme Telegraph, Amy Wilson (7/1/11)
New car sales increased in 2010 Telegraph, Chris Knapman (7/1/11)
Car registrations fall 18% from year ago Financial Times, Norma Cohen (7/1/11)
- What type of tax is VAT? Illustrate the effect of such a tax on a diagram and explain why the higher the price of the good, the bigger the impact of the VAT rise. How might this impact inflation?
- Why are car sales expected to fall in the UK over the coming year? Given this expected trend, what might we expect to see in terms of car prices?
- What impact might rising petrol prices have on new car purchases? What figure would you expect to see for cross elasticity of demand?
- How might the expected decline in car sales affect the UK economy over the next 12 months?
- What type of market structure is the car industry? (Think about the characteristics of monopolistic competition and oligopoly.)
- How did the car scrappage scheme help car sales?
- What might explain the different trend seen in the German car industry?