from Commentaries:

China picks European cars off scrapheap

GERMANY/Chinese carmakers are seeking to step into the gaps left by U.S. companies in Europe -- but while acquisitions may give them access to badly-needed technical know-how, global brands and exposure to new markets, the question is whether they have learnt from past failures.

With China now the world's largest car market, it's no surprise that Chinese carmakers -- which have few if any really solid brands within their home market -- want to start making more of a mark.

In theory, foreign acquisitions offer a quick way to do so. Meanwhile the credit crunch has thrown world-renowned but now distressed car marques such as Volvo, Opel or Saab onto the block at what look like rock-bottom prices.

The worry is that Chinese carmakers haven't always found it plain sailing abroad. SAIC Motor Corp is still feeling the pain of buying into Ssangyong Motor Co of Korea. Ssangyong has struggled to compete as South Korea's smallest carmaker, failing to develop new models and running out of cash. A debt-for-equity swap threatens to slash the Chinese company's holding in the South Korean carmaker from just over 50 percent to around 10.

Chinese companies have had more success when they have simply acquired technology and taken it back to China. SAIC had much more success when it bought Britain's MG Rover. In that case, SAIC closed most of the UK manufacturing and used the know-how to launch a mid-range sedan called the Roewe. This has proved successful in China.

My other car is in limbo

miniimage1 Be careful what you wish for. 

Just a week after launching the cash-for-clunkers rebate program, policymakers and auto executives are left sorting through the chaos caused by the program’s runaway success.

As of Friday, there was no knowing how much longer funding for the program will last. The Obama administration has reassured car shoppers and dealers that any trade-ins over the weekend will be honored at rebates for up to $4,500. Meanwhile, the U.S. House rushed to triple funding  for the program, adding another $2 billion in a bill that heads to the Senate where it could face tougher scrutiny.U.S. car sales for July, set to be released on Monday, are expected to show a turbocharged boost from the government program, a sleeper success in a string of policy steps aimed at stabilizing the U.S. auto industry that has included government-sponsored bankruptcies at GM and Chrysler.Before the rush of clunker trade-ins, analysts had been looking for industry-wide July auto sales to top 10 million units, the highest rate of 2009 and an encouraging sign the market has turned the corner. Investors have discounted some of that recovery. Shares in AutoNation, the No. 1 dealership group, have gained 48 percent since the start of the second quarter. Shares in the No. 2 dealership group, Penske Automotive Group, have more than doubled.With inventories tight, automakers also stand to gain as production — and revenues — increase in the second half. July sales data will help sort the winners from the losers, but the early anecdotal evidence suggests that the some of the biggest gains have gone to the automakers that were already outperforming. Hyundai says about 18 percent of its sales in the month of July included a cash-for-clunker backed trade-in. Ford,  which is seeking to distance itself from the rest of Detroit, reports that cash-for-clunker trade-ins were boosting sales of smaller, more fuel-efficient cars as opposed to crossovers and trucks. That is also the area where Ford’s product line-up is seen as giving it an edge against GM and Chrysler.

Autos closer to life support

CAMBODIA-BIRDFLU/The lame duck may have some quack in it yet.

When President Bush said on Thursday that his administration would not allow a “disorderly” bankruptcy or collapse of the U.S. automakers — leaving “orderly” bankruptcy on the table — it seems to have spurred on the negotiations between Detroit and the White House. General Motors and Chrysler are now close to securing emergency loans as part of a U.S. government aid package, according to sources familiar with the talks.

The aid package being spearheaded by the White House would demand that both automakers restructure by seeking new concessions from unions and creditors, two people briefed on the talks said. With the automakers and the United Auto Workers both desperate to stave off a Chapter 11 filing, which they say would be disastrous, the White House’s discussion of “orderly bankruptcy” may have kickstarted negotiations that have been dragging on ever since Congress rejected the bailout bill once and for all.

UPDATE: Bush is now due to make an announcement on the auto rescue plan at 9 a.m. Eastern time.

Lead Paint and Seat Belts

VOLVO-SAFETY/For the past decade, Volvo has focused on making safe sexy. Sleek designs and souped-up engines have chipped away at the image of the Volvo as a boxy, baby seat-friendly tank, but it still retains more cachet as a cradlemobile than just about any other car. That could all change with new ownership. 
An unnamed source at China’s Changan Automobile tells the National Business Daily that Ford is trying to sell the high-end Swedish car brand to Changan. The report didn’t provide much more detail. 
For Ford, such a move is hardly reckless. Though they are in better shape debt-wise than GM and Chrysler, Ford has been looking to unload pricey brands for some time and will need cash to see them through what is expected to be a protracted economic downturn.
Chinese automakers may not be in much better shape, though, as the auto market slows globally. While it’s not hard to see why a safety-conscious brand might command a premium in China, a country much maligned for exporting unsafe products, Volvo is hardly alone in the For-Sale spotlight in what is still the world’s fastest growing major economy. 
GM may be more desperate to sell its Saab brand – another Swedish safety scion – than Ford is to dump Volvo. Industry sources say U.S. auto companies have approached a number of Chinese companies about possible asset sales but found little interest. The Chinese automaker Chery secured a $1.45 billion loan this week and said it would use the funds to improve its product quality rather than to buy U.S. auto assets.  
Deals of the day 
* Prudential Financial, Manulife Financial and three other firms are expected to place competing bids for two Japanese life insurers put up for sale by American International Group, according to people familiar with the matter.
* India’s Oil & Natural Gas Corp will go ahead with its $2.6 billion takeover of Imperial Energy after a British regulator denied its request for an extension, the Economic Times reported, citing an unidentified person involved in the deal. 
* Vodafone said it would make a public offer for navigational and locating services firm Wayfinder Systems, valuing the Swedish company at 239 million Swedish crowns ($30 million). 
* UK life insurer Friends Provident will pay 170 million ringgit ($46.8 million) for a 30 percent stake in Malaysia’s AmLife Insurance Bhd as it gears up its presence in Asia.
* Australian zinc miner Perilya voiced confidence that its deal to sell a controlling stake to Chinese smelter Shenzhen Zhongjin Lingnan Nonfemet would win foreign-investment approval. The Chinese company will become a majority shareholder in Perilya following a share placement, Perilya said in a statement. 
* Oz Minerals, the world’s second-largest zinc miner that is scrambling to refinance its debt, has attracted the interest of several Chinese metals companies, according to three sources with direct knowledge of the matter. 
* Land of Leather Holdings said it had terminated talks with potential bidders. 
 * Shares in Norwegian information technology group EDB Business Partner rose as much as 11 percent after business daily Finansavisen said Telenor is in talks to sell its 51 percent stake. 
* United Business Media, a British publishing and exhibitions group whose PRNewswire distributes corporate press releases, said it acquired Sanguine Microelectronics for an initial $8 million to expand its presence in China.  

(Photo: Reuters/Bob Strong)

With a pit crew like this…

As GM’s resident guru, Bob Lutz, was telling CNBC he was guardedly optimistic that a short-term loan will be made available to the auto industry, the global picture clouded considerably. The chief of Italian carmaker Fiat told a magazine the company was too small to survive alone, Sweden was reported mulling a rescue package for Volvo and Saab, and Toyota, the world’s biggest car maker, was said to be eyeing spending cuts of up to 40 percent.
Fiat’s chief, Sergio Marchionne, went a little further, prognosticating that Chrysler will disappear and that only six big players will be left around the world when the dust settles. 
White House and congressional negotiators are working on an emergency rescue for the struggling industry, but passage of even a slimmed-down lifeline is far from certain. Sen. Richard Shelby, the top Republican on the Senate Banking Committee, has threatened a filibuster to block any bailout, according to The Senate is due back in session today.
Shelby, an Alabama Republican who has spoken out against the proposed “bridge loan” emergency package, indicated he was ready for battle. “This is a bridge loan to nowhere,” said Shelby, appearing on “Fox News Sunday” with Sen. Carl Levin of Michigan, a Democrat. Senate Banking Committee Chairman Christopher Dodd, who is leading efforts to craft bailout legislation, told CBS that GM Chairman Rick Wagoner should resign. Levin, whose state is home to the major automakers, said he was confident there would be a deal but was less certain a filibuster could be avoided.
Deals of the day:
* San Miguel will buy a majority stake in Petron from the Ashmore Group for about 32.8 billion pesos ($675 million) after the British investment company completes a deal with the Philippine government, San Miguel’s president said.
* U.S. energy producer Arch Coal expects production in 2009 to be flat or slightly lower while overall output for the U.S. coal industry will slow, and also sees plenty of opportunity for acquisitions amid the economic downturn.
* Hedge Fund firm Centaurus is likely to sell its minority stake in French IT services group Atos Origin, but not in the immediate future, sources close to the matter said.
* Belgian-Dutch financial services group Fortis has upped the selling price of its Belgian insurance unit, which French peer BNP Paribas agreed to buy, a Dutch newspaper said. * One potential investor has already cast its eye over Latvian bank Parex, which the state has had to rescue, an official at the country’s bank supervisory body was quoted on as saying.
* Investment group Evolve Capital said it had offered 10.7625 pence a share to buy niche investment bank Blue Oar in a deal that would value the company at 17.9 million pounds ($26.3 million).
* British mid-sized broking firms Ambrian Capital and Panmure Gordon & Co said they have held talks regarding a possible merger between the companies.
* Qantas Airways warned investors its proposed $5.6 billion merger with British Airways faced major obstacles over the terms of the deal and stressed there was a reasonable chance talks would fail.
* French healthcare diagnostics group BioMerieux said it had acquired privately held PML Microbiologicals, a U.S-based provider of culture media and microbiological products.
* Peabody Energy, the most valuable U.S. coal miner, said it is eyeing potential investments in the western regions of China, the country that is expected to drive much of the global growth in demand for coal.
* Swiss drugmaker Roche Holding is still committed to its $43.7 billion bid to buy out U.S. biotech group Genentech, its chief executive was quoted as saying in an interview. * Santos, Australia’s third-largest oil and gas firm, was considering potential initiatives but talk of a possible bid from China National Petroleum Corp (CNPC) was pure speculation, the company said.

(Photo: Reuters/Joachim Hermann)

A checkered flag of surrender

After day one of round two of the $34 billion automaker race to viability, a merger between GM and Chrysler is back on the table, along with just about everything else. Lawmakers are looking for that magic headline that will make the bailout make sense to taxpayers. Senate Banking Committee Chairman Sen. Chris Dodd noted that nothing focuses attention on solutions like impending death.

So far, prospects of an auto czar doling out big chunks of money or a federally mandated merger haven’t convinced the Treasury to use its mighty TARP chest to fund salvage efforts for the auto industry. The Fed could make a loan to automakers in some circumstances. It is expected to send a letter to Dodd today explaining how it must obtain sufficient collateral under law to make any emergency loans, a source familiar with the letter told Reuters.

Motor Trend’s blog argues that a shot-gun wedding would just allow GM to replenish a brand line-up that it has just shrunk to make itself more nimble. In his testimony, GM CEO Rick Wagoner noted that earlier merger talks with Chrysler failed because GM did not have the money.

See your $25 bln, raise you $50 bln

Detroit’s Big Three were on Capitol Hill yesterday looking for a bigger bailout. They knew the results numbers coming out this morning would be grim and would offer little cheer for the future. The $700 billion in financial industry aid that motored through Congress last month must have flashed a big green light for the auto industry.

Originally, $25 billion in loan guarantees were offered to help U.S. cars get greener. But the car companies say the restrictions on how they can use that money make it less than helpful. In fact, GM and Chrysler might not even pass a financial viability test attached to the funds: If strictly enforced, the test could keep them from getting money at all.
Enter $50 billion more now being sought by the Big Three. Half of this amount is meant to pay for healthcare and other benefits for retired autoworkers. The other half would help to ensure solvency — perhaps making GM and Chrysler healthy enough to qualify for the initial aid.
To put the total proposed package in perspective, it amounts to a rebate of roughly $5,500 on every car, minivan, SUV and crossover that will be sold in the United States this year.

Deals of the day:

* Panasonic said it would acquire smaller rival Sanyo, creating Japan’s top electronics maker and foreshadowing further consolidation in an industry hit by slowing consumer demand.

Car and Driver

Panasonic‘s designs on rival Sanyo could produce an $8.7 billion deal, and analysts in Japan seem to think creating a solar power and hybrid car-battery powerhouse is a good fit for a green future. Panasonic runs a car battery venture with Toyota, while Sanyo offers nickel-metal hydride batteries to Ford and Honda and develops lithium-ion batteries for cars with Volkswagen.
Unfortunately, the auto industry is a bit strapped right now. Both presidential candidates have vowed to make high-efficiency cars a big priority, so PanaSanyo must be thinking beyond automakers’ empty pockets. But so far, Detroit has had little luck impressing lawmakers with the need for taxpayer funding for the future of their industry, and one can only think that shipping dollars to Japan to buy batteries would be even less appealing in a recession.
Shares of Panasonic rose 6.8 percent on Tuesday, while Sanyo rose 34.5 percent to its daily limit, helping the Nikkei average to a rise of 6.3 percent. Panasonic says nothing has been decided on a Sanyo purchase, but the Nikkei business daily reported a deal could be announced by Friday.
If PanaSanyo wants to double-down its bet on the car market, it might also consider picking up XM Sirius – if nothing else, they can probably get it for a song.

Deals of the day:

* Want Want China, one of China’s biggest snack makers, said its chairman, Tsai Eng-meng, and family members had reached an agreement to buy Taiwan’s media firm China Times Group for an undisclosed sum.

* Tycoon Richard Li and China Netcom, the two largest shareholders of PCCW, have reached an agreement to buy out other shareholders of the city’s dominant fixed-line provider for up to $2.5 billion and take the company private, a newspaper reported.

Waiver waivered

kerkorian.jpgFord got a boost from billionaire investor Kerk Kerkorian’s Tracinda, which waived a condition requiring it to bail on its tender offer for Ford shares at $8.50 if the stock fell by 10 percent or more from the close of trade on May 8th, when the stock was at $8.20 per share. It closed at $6.71 on Thursday, but was up about 2 and a half percent before the market opened Friday. Tracinda said it “continues to believe in Ford’s management and turnaround efforts and remains committed to its offer,” which expires at on June 9. Tracinda already has 100 million shares of Ford, and if it shied away from the tender offer, the value of its existing investment would suffer. That’s not to say it doesn’t believe in management, but the ring of the endorsement is perhaps a little less pure.

BHP Billiton‘s $180 billion bid for Rio Tinto appears to be yet another firmly inconclusive step closer to reality. The world’s biggest miner, in hot pursuit of unwilling Rio since last fall, has formally filed with the European Commission for takeover clearance. The European Union’s executive arm and antitrust regulator has set a deadline for consideration of July 4. By then, it must approve, extend (briefly) or launch an investigation into the merger bid. Rio spurned BHP’s all-share offer shortly after BHP was required to put up or shut up by British regulators on Feb. 6. The filing was delayed for months during pre-filing talks with the European Commission. Analysts say the most contentious area is likely to be iron ore, since the combined firm would control around a third of seaborne trade in the raw material for making steel.

Casino and racetrack operator Penn National said it was unlikely to receive necessary regulatory approvals before an upcoming merger deadline for its acquisition by a group led by Fortress Investment. Fortress and Centerbridge Partners agreed in June 2007 to buy Penn National for $67 a share, or $6.1 billion. In March, the company said the per share amount will be increased by $0.0149 per day if the buyout is not completed by June 15. Penn said approvals for the merger remain pending before a number of state regulatory authorities. Gambling and racing activities are individually controlled by states, so the company needs the green light from each state it operates in.

The Big Sale at Ford

Logos of the carmakers Jaguar and Land Rover are pictured during the first media day of the 78th Geneva Car Show at the Palexpo in Geneva

 Ford‘s soon-to-be-signed sale of Jaguar and Land Rover to Tata Motors could bring in as much as $2.65 billion, according to local TV, or $2 billion according to the FT. Though the stage appears to be set, a Tata Group spokesman told Reuters discussions were ongoing. Tata Motors, India’s top vehicle maker maker of trucks and busses, received union backing for the deal and was named the front-runner in January by Ford, which is seeking to shore up its balance sheet and reduce debt.

JPMorgan‘s revised takeover offer for Bear Stearns is a “high risk transaction,” Punk Ziegel analyst Richard Bove said after JPMorgan boosted its all-stock offer five-fold to about $10 a share. “What is most disturbing about this deal is that it uses a great deal of Morgan capital to buy a company that is losing market share, in a series of businesses that are declining in size, with a top management team that is best described as sclerotic,” the veteran bank watcher wrote in a note to clients. “Investors believe that JPMorgan is underbidding for Bear Stearns… I do not. … Bear Stearns is a deeply troubled company which would have no value if the Federal Reserve had not stepped in to bail it out.”

China’s state-owned aluminum giant Chinalco - which teamed up last month with Alcoa to buy a $14 billion stake in Rio Tinto - may spend more than $4 billion this year on acquisitions at home and abroad, according to the South China Morning Post. That’s no great pile of investment. BHP has bid $147 billion for Rio. Though the company did not specify targets, it said non-ferrous metals would be the main focus.