Chinese interest in Jeep reflects intertwined global economy
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Great Wall Motor Co.’s flirtation with Jeep ended as abruptly as it started, but it won’t be the last we’ll hear from foreign automakers, including ones from China, regarding the iconic American sport-utility company. 

Jeep and its parent company, Fiat Chrysler Automobiles, are for sale, and foreign companies are the most likely buyers.

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Great Wall, China’s largest sport-utility vehicle manufacturer has global aspirations, and it said publicly — through the media — that it wanted to buy Jeep. But within a day or so, the company admitted it made no official offer, and it hadn’t decided if it would continue its pursuit.

 

It is not clear why Great Wall backed off. Perhaps it was the potential political backlash as tensions between the U.S. and China rise, or the hefty price tag for Jeep was bandied about in the press. In any event, Great Wall’s public overture kicked off global media coverage, pushed Fiat Chrysler’s stock price to new highs and alerted the world that Fiat Chrysler and Jeep were in play.

Fiat Chrysler CEO Sergio Marchionne, who headed Fiat when he plucked Chrysler out of bankruptcy in 2009, retires at the end of 2018. He wants a deal before he leaves. Marchionne insists global auto industry consolidation is inevitable for economies of scale, particularly as vehicles go electric and autonomous.

Advanced technologies will require significant investment, with questionable returns for automakers. Fiat Chrysler is the smallest and weakest of Detroit’s automakers and ranks seventh-largest globally.

Domestic automakers General Motors and Ford are unlikely buyers, at least for the entire Fiat Chrysler enterprise, which includes the Jeep, Chrysler, Dodge and Ram brands in the U.S., as well as Fiat, Alfa Romeo and Maserati in Europe. Ferrari is run as a separate company. General Motors already spurned Marchionne’s merger proposal in 2015. 

That leaves foreign automakers as likely candidates for partnership or takeover. Volkswagen is oft mentioned as a potential mate, but that now seems unlikely, as Volkswagen already has numerous brands and is trying to recover from its diesel emissions scandal.

The mix of company and brand ownerships, as well as sourcing of vehicles, has gone even more international in recent years. India’s Tata bought the Jaguar and Land Rover brands from Ford. Chinese automaker Geely purchased Swedish car company Volvo. General Motors sells the Chinese-made Buick Envision sport-utility vehicle in the U.S., and Ford plans to import its small Focus car from China for sale in the U.S.

Meantime, Chinese auto companies have been gaining a foothold in the U.S. by purchasing all of or stakes in automotive parts companies, mostly located in the Midwest. The latest move was Chinese-owned Key Systems in Michigan that is buying the assets of Takata, the troubled Japanese airbag manufacturer. Chinese tech companies are among the largest shareholders in California-based electric vehicle makers Tesla Motors and Faraday Future.

Fiat Chrysler has not confirmed that it is willing to break up the company and to sell only Jeep, which dates back to World War II military vehicles. If Jeep is put on the auction block, it would have many bidders. Extremely valuable with potential for substantial global growth, Jeep would have a price tag estimated by analysts at $20 billion or more.

Indeed, Jeep has history with China. It was the first American brand to return to China in modern history. The Beijing Jeep joint venture started in 1983 before Chrysler bought the brand from American Motors. After a hiatus, Jeep again returned to China, where Fiat Chrysler recently expanded Jeep manufacturing with local partners, who also could be potential buyers of the brand.

The dilemma for Fiat Chrysler, however, is that selling Jeep doesn’t leave much value. Jeep and its Ram truck operations account for the bulk of Fiat Chrysler’s revenues and earnings. 

Chinese automakers wanting to buy Jeep or Fiat Chrysler also face challenges. Most formidable are political ones in the Trump administration era of "America First" and "Buy American." Tensions between Washington and China have risen with the U.S.’s investigation into China’s alleged theft of U.S. intellectual property and sanctions levied against China and some of its companies regarding sales of goods to North Korea.

At the same time, however, the U.S. government has to tread carefully. Like other American corporations, Fiat Chrysler, Ford and General Motors have become increasingly reliant on China for growth and profits. The Chinese automotive market, which is the world’s largest at some 28 million new vehicles sold a year, dwarfs the U.S., the world’s second-largest market with about 17 million new vehicles a year. China also has far more growth potential.

Selling a high-profile U.S. automaker, one with an iconic American brand like Jeep, will be tricky, especially against the complicated backdrop of politics and entangled business relationships, but it is not impossible. Great Wall’s overture marks just the opening chapter. More chapters with more characters will unfold over the next 18 months before Marchionne retires from Fiat Chrysler.

Michelle Krebs is executive analyst for Autotrader, the most visited third-party car shopping site. Autotrader is a Cox Automotive™ brand. Cox Automotive is a subsidiary of Cox Enterprises. For more information, visit https://www.coxautoinc.com/.


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