The car business is booming again – here’s how to profit

The financial crisis hit the global car industry hard. But now it's bouncing back. Matthew Partridge looks at the industry, and picks the best carmaker to buy now.


Car sales are bouncing back

The car industry is one of the most important consumer businesses to the global economy.

It's easy to see why. Other than a house, a car is likely to be the largest single purchase an individual makes. And unless you live in a city with a decent public transport system, most people find that they need a car to get around conveniently.

But the scale of the post-financial crisis recession hit the industry hard.

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Drivers in Europe and the US stopped replacing their cars. Younger people put off buying their first car, or even learning to drive in some cases. There have even been features in the US press warning of peak car' that a whole new generation of non-drivers is being created.

As usual, when you read these sorts of new normal' pieces, it generally means the old normal' is right around the corner.

So it is with the car business. A combination of cheap money and an old-fashioned cyclical recovery, means that car sales are bouncing back.

But there's still plenty of room for you to profit here's how

China was always over-hyped but now it's underplayed

Remember those stories? "If everyone in China bought a fridge if everyone in China buys a smartphone if everyone in China buys a handbag"

China's urbanising population was the gift that would never stop giving to investors in Western consumer stocks, particularly luxury ones.

Now of course, it's clear that the Chinese economy is slowing. And as our editor-in-chief Merryn Somerset Webb has noted, the crackdown on corruption is hitting sales of luxury cars (which are an obvious sign that civil servants and officials are receiving bribes).

And as is the way with markets, investors are starting to think that the whole China story was one big illusion.

However, looking at the cold facts, China is clearly still a market waiting to be tapped by the car industry. According to the World Bank, there are less than six cars for every 100 Chinese people. This contrasts with 52 for the UK and 80 for the US. Even Thailand, which has a similar GDP per head to China, has close to 16.

And while China has made lots of wasteful investment, all that building has left it with a pretty well developed highway network. Beijing intends to increase the national road system by another 1,254 miles. The World Economic Forum now rates the quality of China's road network on a par with Italy's. (That may say more about Italy's roads than China's, but you get the point.)

At the same time, the Chinese government is trying to generate more economic growth from consumption, rather than building stuff that no one needs. This will not be a smooth process. But with wages rising rapidly, attitudes are changing, especially among younger Chinese.

Industry surveys suggest that most Chinese citizens in their early thirties or younger now see car ownership as a necessity, says Carlos Gomes of Scotiabank. But around three quarters of them have yet to buy a car.

This suggests that in the absence of a truly epic collapse, car sales are likely to continue growing rapidly in China.

America needs to replace its ancient cars

This is being driven by several factors. A strengthening economy and jobs growth has left more people in a position to consider purchasing a new car, of course. But a more critical factor is the sheer age of vehicles on the road now.

Following the financial crisis, people simply didn't feel confident enough to buy new vehicles. So the average age of cars and light vans on American roads is now a record 11.4 years. Experts reckon that 12 years is about the limit for a car before it starts becoming too expensive for the average person to maintain.

So the simple need to replace old stock is going to be enough in itself to boost US sales for the next few years.

Easier availability of credit is another big factor. With interest rates still low (despite the recent squeeze), buying a car on finance looks cheap which means dealers don't have to offer as many discounts, or other incentives, to boost sales. That in turn means more profit for the manufacturers.

One dependable car maker to buy now

Volkswagen AG


That means it can appeal to consumers who want a reliable new car, but don't want to spend a huge amount on something flashy. That gives VW a good chance of winning over US consumers who are now buying for the first time in several years.

Meanwhile, its joint venture with the Chinese First Automotive Works gives it exposure to the rapidly-growing market, especially the critical budget end. Indeed, it is the second-largest foreign car firm in China (behind GM). All this means that it is projected to maintain solid revenue growth of around 4-5% a year until 2016.

Most importantly, VW is cheap on 7.8 times earnings, falling to just over six times by 2015. It also trades below the value of its net assets, which makes it a lot cheaper than several of its rivals. For instance, BMW and GM trade on 1.57 times and 1.79 times book value respectively.

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Dr Matthew Partridge

Matthew graduated from the University of Durham in 2004; he then gained an MSc, followed by a PhD at the London School of Economics.

He has previously written for a wide range of publications, including the Guardian and the Economist, and also helped to run a newsletter on terrorism. He has spent time at Lehman Brothers, Citigroup and the consultancy Lombard Street Research.

Matthew is the author of Superinvestors: Lessons from the greatest investors in history, published by Harriman House, which has been translated into several languages. His second book, Investing Explained: The Accessible Guide to Building an Investment Portfolio, is published by Kogan Page.

As senior writer, he writes the shares and politics & economics pages, as well as weekly Blowing It and Great Frauds in History columns He also writes a fortnightly reviews page and trading tips, as well as regular cover stories and multi-page investment focus features.

Follow Matthew on Twitter: @DrMatthewPartri