The automobile industry navigated a tumultuous period featured by the pandemic-induced supply chain hiccups, soaring inflation, and climbing interest rates. However, the situation is improving lately thanks to the surge in EV demand.
According to Cox Automotive, during the first half of 2023, new vehicle sales in the U.S. surged 12.3% year-over-year, taking total sales to 7.69 million units, exceeding the estimated projections of 7.65 million.
However, this respite in the auto industry could be short-lived due to looming tensions wrought by potential strikes threatened by the United Auto Workers (UAW) union at Stellantis (STLA), Ford Motor Company (F), and General Motors (GM), should contractual negotiations not reach a successful conclusion by September 14, 2023.
In a recent authorization vote surrounding the possibility of walk-outs at these major plants, referred to as the ‘Big Three,’ employing 150,000 UAW-unionized workers, an overwhelming 97% of UAW members voiced their support.
UAW has outlined several ambitious targets. There will be a determined attempt to reinstate specific contractual provisions relinquished during the 2007 negotiations, including retiree health insurance and the abolition of a conventional pension scheme.
Since 2010, the number of U.S. automobile manufacturing jobs has risen. However, exponential advancements in EVs, increasingly supported by the government, could result in mass staff layoffs.
The main apprehensions of American autoworkers are twofold. First, the predicted transition to EV production could usher in layoffs and factory closures. Second, because many battery production companies are joint ventures, these entities might not pledge primary allegiance to union demands.
Adding to the frustration, workers have expressed discontent over profit distribution, claiming that corporate executives pocket vast returns, leaving little for the rank-and-file.
Substantiating this fear is that each of the three auto manufacturers has scaled down their employment figures over the past year. In June, Ford undertook a series of layoffs impacting nearly 1,000 workers across its gas-powered, EV production, and software development sectors. While it rationalizes the reductions as realignments based on ‘skills and expertise,’ hiring was reported only in ‘key area.’
Similarly, GM shut down an IT center in Arizona in October last year and initiated layoffs impacting about 940 workers. Moreover, the company acknowledged that over 5,000 salaried employees had opted for buyout offers as part of a broader cost-saving execution amid economic recession fears.
Furthermore, STLA, following a similar suit, offered buyouts to over 33,000 employees in April to avert layoffs that have befallen other automakers.
Amid these events, the union has vocalized its intent to secure protection against employment terminations and plant closures.
Potential Impact of the Strike
Halting production for even one big automaker during a strike could have acute ramifications, directly harming thousands of workers, and the companies could face significant financial losses due to diminished sales and stalled production.
F employs the highest number of UAWs, approximately 57,000 across all its U.S. manufacturing units, while its counterparts GM and STLA have 46,000 and 44,000 UAW members, respectively.
The UAW has amassed over $825 million in its strike fund to provide employees on strike with a weekly allowance of $500, projected to be exhausted within 11 weeks. Strikers would lose out on wages that would only be partially offset by the union’s weekly benefit.
During strikes, the financial implications for auto companies can be catastrophic. The 2019 40-day strike reportedly cost GM a staggering $3.6 billion. A prolonged strike may also threaten the UAW’s efforts to restore its reputation after several corruption allegations.
The fallout from a strike on the 'Big Three' automakers could result in production delays or potential shutdowns, influencing their overall revenues. Meanwhile, there has been news of F preparing its salaried and white-collar workforce to step into production roles should the UAW members initiate a strike.
Negotiations ensuing these situations could add over $80 billion in labor costs to each automaker over the contract period and increase the likelihood of work stoppages.
The Anderson Economic Group forecasts that potential work stoppages could inflict an economic loss exceeding $5 billion within 10 days. Similarly, Deutsche Bank hypothesizes that each automaker could endure earnings losses ranging between $400 million and $500 million for each week of halted production.
It could jeopardize production schedules within the Big Three's auto manufacturing realm. If the production losses escalate rapidly, it might lead to approximately 1.5 million units forfeiting. However, these aggressive tactics primarily favor the interests of the UAW rather than the companies or their shareholders.
If the demands are fulfilled without any revisions to other benefits, the hourly labor cost for automakers will more than double, representing a significant increase compared to the rates settled in the preceding four-year agreements.
Considering the current scenario, let us understand where the ‘Big Three’ automakers stand.
Headquartered in Hoofddorp, the Netherlands, STLA reported a record-breaking earnings report for the six months ended June 30, 2023. Its net revenues increased 11.8% year-over-year to €98.37 billion ($104.52 billion), while adjusted operating income grew 11% from the year-ago value to €14.13 billion ($15.32 billion). The company’s net profit rose 37.2% year-over-year to €10.92 billion ($11.84 billion).
Following these impressive financial results, STLA projects that its adjusted operating income margin will reach double digits and maintain a positive industrial free cash flow for the 2023 fiscal year.
On August 24, it announced the expansion of its SPOTiCAR program to the U.S. This initiative aims to streamline vehicle purchases for individuals and businesses through digital tools and specialized dealerships, thereby increasing customer satisfaction and future product value.
On August 23, the company completed an agreement with AGI, a leader in nationwide branded infrastructure programs for more than 50 years, to support national U.S. dealership electrification and EV charging capabilities. These moves are expected to help STLA fulfill its Dare Forward 2030 strategy to achieve 50% battery-EV sales by the end of this decade. This strategic partnership with AGI will significantly augment STLA's revenue generation capacity.
As a result of such developments, Analysts expect STLA’s revenue and EPS in the fiscal year (ending December 2023) to be $205.16 billion and $5.70, registering growths of 7.8% and 3.2% year-over-year, respectively. Moreover, the company surpassed the consensus revenue estimates in all the trailing four quarters.
Shares of STLA have gained 28.9% year-to-date and lost 10.9% over the past month to close the last trading session at $18.30.
Institutional investors and hedge funds have recently changed their STLA stock holdings. Institutions hold roughly 29.3% of STLA shares. Of the 433 institutional holders, 200 have increased their positions in the stock. Moreover, 60 institutions have taken new positions (7,111,951 shares), while 42 have sold positions in the stock (30,938,367 shares).
Legacy automaker F posted better-than-expected second-quarter earnings and raised their respective 2023 projections.
During the second quarter, F’s revenues rose 11.9% year-over-year to $44.95 billion, and automotive revenues peaked at $42.43 billion, surpassing the $40.38 billion estimate. The net income almost tripled to $1.92 billion, marking an 187.4% year-over-year increase.
The automaker raised its full-year adjusted EBIT guidance range from $9 billion and $11 billion to $11 billion and $12 billion while simultaneously raising its adjusted free cash flow guidance from $6 billion to $6.5 billion and $7 billion. The company anticipates to hit an 8% EBIT target by 2026.
In August, SK On, EcoProBM, and F announced a C$1.2 billion investment to construct a cathode manufacturing facility that will provide materials to supply batteries to solidify the EV supply chain in North America. With production anticipated to commence by the first half of 2026, the facility is expected to produce up to 45,000 tonnes of CAM annually. Being F's inaugural investment in Québec, this new facility aligns with the company's goal of localizing vital battery raw material processing in regions where EV manufacturing occurs.
On August 1, F reopened its Rouge Electric Vehicle Center after a six-week expansion project, increasing its capacity to 150,000 units by the fall to meet the heavy demand. Nevertheless, a strike projected for September threatens to curtail the benefits of this additional capacity, given the likely slowdown in production.
Investor apprehension was fueled by multiple facets of the company's earnings and guidance. Notably, the EV segment of the business, recently rebranded as Model E, reported a pre-tax loss of $1.08 billion. The firm anticipates losses for this segment could mount to $4.5 billion in 2023, a startling increase of 50% compared to previous estimates.
Amid a global price war, F reduced prices for its 2023 Motor Trend Car of the Year F-150 Lightning Electric Truck, directly responding to price cuts implemented by rival Tesla. Consequently, this strategy spurred a six-fold demand surge in orders and over 50% for its XLT trim level. The price cuts are anticipated to dent the profitability of industry players.
Additionally, the company has publicly acknowledged the slow pace of EV adoption and consequently has dialed back its ambitious EV production plans. The company now expects to hit an annual production capacity of 600,000 vehicles by 2024 instead of 2023 while being “flexible” about the goal of 2 million vehicles it previously forecast by 2026.
Analysts expect F’s revenue and EPS in the fiscal year (ending December 2023) to be $166.11 billion and $2.07, registering 11.5% and 10.2% year-over-year growths, respectively. Moreover, the company surpassed the consensus revenue estimates in three of the trailing four quarters.
Considering these developments, F’s shares have been facing pressures, sending its stock down to May 2023 levels. Over the past year, the stock declined 22.8% and 10.3% over the past month to close the last trading session at $11.90.
Institutions hold roughly 54.7% of F shares. Of the 1,798 institutional holders, 773 have decreased their positions in the stock. Moreover, 131 institutions have taken new positions (12,514,405 shares), while 135 have sold positions in the stock (18,347,658 shares).
Detroit’s auto giant, GM, reported impressive revenue and profit growth, upgrading its profit prediction for the second time this year. Despite global challenges, the company continues to see robust demand for its vehicles and reduced expenditure.
For the fiscal second quarter that ended June 30, 2023, GM’s total revenues grew 25.1% year-over-year to $44.75 billion, while its adjusted EBIT rose 38% year-over-year to $3.23 billion. Its net income attributable to stockholders rose 51.7% year-over-year to $2.57 billion, while its adjusted EPS came in at $1.91, representing a 67.5% increase year-over-year. GM’s adjusted automotive free cash flow amplified 294.3% year-over-year to $5.55 billion.
The company has revised its net income expectations for the ongoing fiscal year from an earlier high-end estimate of $9.3 billion to $10.7 billion. Its automotive division’s free cash flow is also expected to come between $7 billion and $9 billion, up from $5.5 billion to $7.5 billion.
This impressive financial performance, fueled by a thriving conventional auto business spotlighting profitable trucks and SUVs, has facilitated the company's intensified entry into the electric vehicle (EV) sector. GM said it would increase cost-cutting measures through next year by an additional $1 billion in expenditures.
Investors can look forward to significant potential gains if the company successfully leverages new business opportunities and smoothly transitions from reliance on internal combustion engine sales to EVs.
By aligning focus on the promising sectors of electric and autonomous vehicles, connected services, and new business models, GM anticipates being able to double company revenue by the decade’s end. Additionally, it envisages its EV wing reaching profitability by 2025, boasting an EV production capacity of 1 million units in North America and approximately $50 billion in EV-generated revenue.
GM's endeavors to explore fresh avenues of income are highlighted by its autonomous robotaxi unit, Cruise. The company recently declared the commencement of production for numerous EVs based on the freshly conceptualized Ultium platform from 2023’s second half. Initiated in 2018, the Ultium EV platform is versatile enough to produce various vehicle sizes and types across segments. The wide range of the platform will help streamline production and improve its supply chain, helping push toward more profitable EVs.
However, GM has struggled to ramp up production of its EVs this year, citing problems with battery module availability. GM said it is resolving that issue, and EV production is expected to improve in the second half of 2023.
Analysts expect GM’s revenue and EPS in the fiscal year (ending December 2023) to be $171.71 billion and $7.73, registering 9.6% and 1.9% year-over-year growth, respectively. Moreover, the company surpassed the consensus EPS estimates in all the trailing four quarters.
Institutional investors have recently changed their holdings of GM stock. Institutions hold roughly 82% of GM shares. Of the 1,346 institutional holders, 575 have decreased their positions in the stock. Moreover, 110 institutions have taken new positions (6,710,244 shares), while 95 have sold positions in the stock (7,158,230 shares).
Warren Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway recently announced a significant reduction in its stake in GM during the second quarter by 45%, from about 40 million to about 22 million. The decision could be related to the challenging contract negotiations.
Considering these developments, GM’s shares have been facing pressure. Over the past year, the stock declined 15.6% and 13% over the past month to close the last trading session at $33.12.
GM and F might face over 10% decline in their earnings, should a prolonged strike occur. However, STLA is less susceptible to this risk due to its primary business concentration in Europe, regions lacking a UAW union presence.
American Axle, for instance, gets an estimated 55% to 65% of its revenue from operations dependent on UAW workers, while Magna International gets 35% to 40%, and Lear gets 30% to 35%.
Furthermore, the replacement rates, indicating the percentage of product portfolio to be swapped with brand-new products in the next four years, carry significant implications. It impacts the age of products displayed in showrooms, the market share companies can capture, and their corresponding profitability.
John Murphy, the Lead U.S. Auto Analyst at Bank of America’s Equity Research, highlighted that companies with lower replacement rates indicate a less fresh product and are expected to lose more market share. Conversely, businesses with higher replacement rates tend to gain more market share.
According to the Car Wars study, the anticipated vehicle replacement rate between 2024 and 2027 is expected to align with the historical average of 15%. In this respect, F appears optimally positioned, while STLA lags. GM, on the other hand, “marginally” lags the industry’s average replacement rate.
GM's replacement rate is forecasted to land close to the industry average of 22.8%. F's forecasted replacement rate is the highest in the industry, at 24.8%, while STLA’s is at the bottom of the list with a forecasted replacement rate of 15.9%.
The auto industry in the U.S. constitutes approximately 4% of the nation's Gross Domestic Product (GDP). Underpinning this, an upward trend in the industry is anticipated to generate a broader economic resurgence.
The strike is anticipated to impact the three big automakers, their shareholders, the associated industries, and the overall auto market. However, what looms on the horizon involves more than simply elevating individual living standards. A contemplative eye must be cast toward the imminent influence of technology on prospective employment within the sector.
As Peter Berg, Professor of Employment Relations at Michigan State University, posited, the gradual transition from combustion engines to battery-operated electric vehicles will inevitably reconfigure manufacturing, requiring a fewer workforce possessing divergent skill sets.
Notably, the potential strike could exert a greater impact on automakers' operations and financial outcomes than one that occurred four years ago. This amplified threat is primarily attributable to the ongoing recovery of the U.S. auto industry from supply chain disruptions caused by the pandemic and lower vehicle inventory levels. Such elements make it imperative for negotiators to swiftly broker a satisfactory compromise to mitigate costly fiscal repercussions for all stakeholders involved.