1. Skip to content
  2. Skip to main menu
  3. Skip to more DW sites

German automakers' coronavirus headache

February 14, 2020

The virus threatens to halve February car sales in China, the largest market for Volkswagen, BMW and Mercedes. It's the latest setback for Germany's struggling auto industry, already reeling from waning global demand.

The giant logo of German vehicle maker Daimler's Mercedes-Benz sits on the top of its head office building in Beijing on October 11, 2010
Image: Gou Yige/AFP/Getty Images

The coronavirus outbreak in China is expected to hurt car sales in the world's biggest auto market, dealing a major blow to German carmakers, which depend on the Asian economic powerhouse for a bulk of their sales.

Analysts at Swiss investment bank UBS expect car sales in China to fall by more than 50% in February and a loss in production capacity of about 20% in the ongoing quarter as carmakers struggle with extended factory shutdowns, supply chain disruptions and a drop in demand.

The virus is the latest headache for the German auto industry, already reeling from pollution concerns, exacerbated by the "Dieselgate" emissions scandal, waning global demand amid weakening economic growth, higher tariffs caused by US-China trade tensions and a costly transition to electric and self-driving cars.

Mercedes Benz-owner Daimler and Volkswagen's Audi unit have announced nearly 20,000 job cuts in the past few months as they look to save costs to fund their electric car drive. Car parts suppliers Continental and Robert Bosch also plan to cut thousands of jobs.

"German automakers and suppliers are the most exposed in Europe [to the coronavirus]," Emmanuel Bulle, senior director at Fitch Ratings, told DW. "The risk for German manufacturers comes chiefly from lost sales rather than immediate disrupted production, since BMW, Daimler and VW have no factories in Hubei," he said referring to the Chinese province —an auto production hub — at the heart of the outbreak that has claimed more than 1,300 lives. 

German automakers, unlike Chinese and US makers, have been increasing their market share in China even as the auto industry in the Asian country witnesses its worst slump in over two decades. China accounts for four out of every 10 Volkswagen cars sold worldwide and almost three out of every 10 BMW or Mercedes cars delivered globally. BMW's and Daimler's shares of earnings coming from China are even higher.

Empty showrooms

The majority of car showrooms in China remain closed as the country slowly returns to work after an extended New Year break. Even the 20%-30% dealerships that are open are hardly witnessing any footfalls, according to the China Automobile Dealers Association.

UBS analyst Paul Gong says while first-time buyers may have a stronger desire to own a private transportation vehicle to shield themselves from a virus, as happened during the SARS outbreak in 2003, replacement buyers — which account for two-thirds of the market — may delay their purchases for the time being, mainly hurting the premium German car brands.

Replacement buyers are existing car owners who are looking to upgrade to a more premium brand.

"The replacement buyers who would have perhaps opted for German brands would not be too eager to replace their cars at this moment because that is obviously not a priority," Gong told DW. "So, you would probably see some delay effect."  

Volkswagen and Daimler told DW that while it was too early to gauge the full impact of the virus crisis, they do expect it to hit their sales.

"Facing the current challenge, we know that purchasing new cars is not a priority for most people," said Nikolas Thorke, spokesman for Volkswagen's China operation. 

Volkswagen has tweaked its marketing strategy with a greater focus now on online interaction and transaction with customers via online showrooms. The company did not provide any data on the response to its online showrooms, but Gong said the online showrooms in general were not attracting much traffic.

Extended factory shutdowns

Mercedes-Benz's Chinese joint venture Beijing Benz restarted production of luxury passenger cars on Monday, about a week later than otherwise scheduled.

Gong of UBS said so far, it's been a gradual ramp-up in production by the automakers, with many facilities working at just 20% of their full capacity. He said there were reports that Daimler was also struggling to ramp up production, with its suppliers unable to provide enough components.

Volkswagen's local joint ventures, FAW-Volkswagen and SAIC Volkswagen, are expected to resume production at all their plants by the beginning of next week at the latest (February 17). The JVs delivered 4.21 million vehicles, or about 40% of total VW global sales, to buyers on the Chinese mainland and in Hong Kong in 2018.

BMW's joint venture BMW Brilliance (BBA) is also expected to resume production on Monday after an extended production break. The two BBA plants produced over 530,000 in 2019, all intended for the local Chinese market. BMW sold 2.5 million cars worldwide.

While German carmakers may so far have escaped the worst of supply-related disruptions thanks to them not having factories in the auto production hub of Hubei, automakers elsewhere are bracing for a major fallout from the virus outbreak.

Fiat Chrysler has warned that it may have to shut a European plant in the coming weeks if Chinese parts suppliers cannot resume work. Hyundai Motor and Kia Motors shut down plants in Korea due to supply constraints at plants in China's Shandong Province.

Brighter long-term prospects

Auto analysts say some lost sales have only been postponed and that orders will rebound in the coming months. In fact, new car sales could even go up in the longer term as the experience of disrupted public transportation and ride-hailing services during the crisis may prompt more people to buy their own cars.

But, there is a caveat: If the crisis lingers on for a few more weeks, then it would start hurting the broader economy and result in a loss in consumer confidence, ultimately hitting auto sales.

"It will be interesting to see whether or not the potential customers for the more premium products offered by Volkswagen, BMW and Daimler are more resilient in terms of their spending power," Mark Fulthorpe from IHS Markit told DW. "I think you can probably suggest that they will be. They probably have more savings. They are probably better employed. So, there may be a greater resilience there."

Portrait photo of Ashutosh Pandey wearing a blue collared shirt and a navy-blue blazer
Ashutosh Pandey Business editor with a focus on international trade, financial markets and the energy sector.@ashutoshpande85