CHINESE UPDATE – The Future of Automotive JVs under the New Policy of Opening Up the Automotive Industry in China
There are numerous examples of Automotive JVs that have been operating successfully and profitably in China for more than a decade. With the imminent removal of the shareholding cap on foreign investment in automotive manufacturing, there will be opportunities for Chinese and foreign parties to alter their equity holdings, including being able to buy out the JV partner or exit in part or completely. It is our assessment that Chinese and foreign parties are unlikely to immediately implement any major changes. Rather, we expect them to maintain the status quo for a considerable period of time, until larger commercial incentives trigger a withdrawal of one of the joint venture partners.
At the recent Boao Forum for Asia Annual Conference 2018, the Chinese President Mr. Xi Jinping announced that “China will remain unchanged in its adherence to reforming and opening up, and will continue to launch new major measures to pursue further opening up.” Since then, both the National Development and Reform Commission (“NDRC”) and the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology in their respective Answers to Reporters’ Questions have committed to gradually opening up automotive manufacturing to foreign investment before 2022 by removing the shareholding limit for foreign investors and also the restriction on foreign investors being allowed to invest in no more than two automotive joint ventures. The reforms and their implications for the future are of great relevance to the many long-standing, active Sino-foreign automotive joint ventures (“Automotive JVs”). In this article, we will discuss several possible development paths for Automotive JVs, and some of the issues arising from the reforms.
I. Possible Development Paths for Automotive JVs
1. Chinese Partner Acquires All or Part of the Equity Held by Foreign Investor
Thanks to the massive growth in demand in the Chinese automotive market, many of the Automotive JVs have been highly profitable. The Chinese partners of those Automotive JVs have primarily been very large central or local state-owned enterprises (“SOEs”) with solid foundations and extensive connections, enabling them to make a vital contribution to Automotive JVs’ swift localization and expansion within the Chinese market. It may be that these Chinese partners will hope to acquire the equity interest held by their Automotive JV foreign partners in order to further strengthen their control within the Automotive JV and to improve their profit earnings. However, Automotive JVs are still largely reliant upon their foreign partners for business resources including branding, new ideas, technology and equipment, and the auto groups to which the foreign partners belong are unlikely to willingly give up the substantial revenue and profits generated by the Automotive JVs. Hence, it will likely prove difficult, at least in the short run, for the Chinese partners of any successful Automotive JV to disrupt the structural balance by acquiring all or part of their foreign partner’s equity.
However, for an Automotive JV that is struggling and not profitable, it is possible that the Chinese partner may be able to acquire their foreign partner’s equity. Indeed, it may well be that a foreign partner in such unsuccessful Automotive JV has already been contemplating an exit. The gradual removal of restrictions on foreign investment in automotive manufacturing presents the opportunity for foreign partners to leave an unsuccessful Automotive JV and set up their own entity. However, before making such a decision, a foreign partner should first make a full assessment of its ability to operate the business independently. Success in the Chinese market requires not only branding, technology and management expertise, but also access to and control of sales channels and an in-depth understanding of local consumers and markets.
2. Foreign Partner Acquires All or Part of the Equity Held by Chinese Partner
Removing the shareholding cap of foreign investments in automotive manufacturing has eliminated the legal barrier preventing foreign partners from acquiring the equity held by their Chinese partners, but is of course dependent upon the willingness of both sides to pursue this option. It seems highly unlikely that a Chinese partner would be inclined to relinquish its equity interest in a profitable Automotive JV. Moreover, from a strategic perspective, a Chinese partner aiming to build up its own brands may use the leverage of its involvement in an Automotive JV, which brings with it indirect support in the expansion and influence of the Chinese partner’s own independent brands, by having access to the Automotive JV’s upgraded products and technologies, and skills development. In addition, with only very limited licenses to manufacture traditional fuel vehicles, it is highly unlikely that any newly established automotive manufacturer would be able to attain the necessary regulatory approval. Ultimately, the Chinese partner is highly unlikely to hand over control of the Automotive JV with the required manufacturing license. For an under-performing Automotive JV, while the acquisition of a Chinese partner’s equity may not bring immediate financial benefits, the foreign partner could use the existing manufacturing approval, production lines and personnel to start production right away. Provided the acquisition price of the Chinese partner’s equity is reasonable, this could be an effective shortcut for a foreign brand seeking to obtain production capacity and operate independently.
3. Maintain the Status Quo
After the NDRC released its information on easing restrictions on foreign investment in automotive manufacturing, some of the foreign partners of existing Automotive JVs were quick to confirm their intention to continue to support the development of their respective current joint ventures in China. It is our assessment that both the Chinese and foreign parties should take a pragmatic approach to the new policy and, at least in the short-term, focus on maintaining the current structure. It seems unlikely — at least until the expiry of the operation term of the existing joint venture contract — that the Chinese and foreign parties of most of Automotive JVs automakers will initiate a change in the balance of ownership by seeking to acquire all or part of the equity held by their partner.
II. Key Factors Influencing the Possible Development Path
Once the shareholding limits for foreign investors in automotive manufacturing have been phased out, a variety of factors will determine whether foreign automakers choose to remain with their Chinese partners or to make their own way. Some of the key factors for consideration are listed below.
1. Continuing Product Upgrade
At present, many of the Automotive JVs’ products are based upon foreign brands’ original overseas car models. The production of core components, such as vehicle engines and gearboxes, is primarily based upon foreign partner’s technology. Therefore, the prosperity of the Chinese automobile market driven by the Automotive JVs is essentially attributable to foreign automakers’ products. The continuing survival and success of Automotive JVs is at least in part dependent upon foreign partners providing access to upgraded products and technologies. The growing sophistication of Chinese consumers and the emergence of local automotive brands builders means that Automotive JVs are facing an ever more demanding and competitive market. Only those Automotive JVs that continuously innovate will survive. The removal of the shareholder cap means that a foreign automaker with strong product R&D and upgrade capabilities and whose Chinese partners lack product input capabilities may be able to use their relative strength to persuade their Chinese partner to transfer some of their equity. If a foreign automaker is able to obtain continuing regulatory approval to manufacture on their own (as mentioned above, the possibility of obtaining new licenses is very slim), it may be possible for the foreign automaker to set aside the existing Automotive JV in order to establish a separate company, manufacturing and selling their own automobiles in a wholly-owned company.
2. The Trend toward New Energy Vehicles
The growth in purchases of traditional fuel vehicles has slowed down in recent years. In the meantime, sales of new energy vehicles are increasing, attributable at least to some extent to Chinese government efforts to promote these upgraded, clean energy automobiles. Nowadays the vast majority of Automotive JVs’ production is traditional fuel vehicles. However, this is likely to change, with declined growth in demand for fuel vehicles, the implementation of government policy incentives for new energy vehicles, and preemptive dominance of the new energy car market by the Chinese traditional and new automakers. Given that the first shareholding cap to be eliminated will be on new energy car manufacturers, in 2018, foreign automakers will need to decide how they intend to manufacture new energy vehicles in China, whether by taking advantage of a current Automotive JV to apply for cross-category production of new energy vehicles, or by establishing a new wholly-owned subsidiary to undertake this task. The Measures for the Parallel Administration of the Average Fuel Consumption and New Energy Vehicle Points of Passenger Vehicle Enterprises (“Points Administration Policy”) that have been implemented since April 1, 2018, require foreign automakers to take into account the impact on the production of fuel vehicles by the existing JV automaker in their overall production plans. Starting from 2019, according to the Points Administration Policy, there will be a points system under which Automotive JVs will be subject to production limits for fuel vehicles. When this limit is reached, they will be required to produce a certain proportion of new energy vehicles in order to be permitted to continue the production of fuel vehicles. Points will be accrued for the manufacture of new energy vehicles by Automotive JVs and additionally will be available for purchase, through an official platform, from third parties with surplus points. As it stands, the simplest way for foreign automakers to satisfy the new energy vehicle points requirements and to continue production of fuel vehicles is to maintain their current Automotive JV, while introducing new energy vehicle models.
Influences of the Tariff Cut
On May 22, 2018, the Customs Tariff Commission of the State Council issued an announcement stating that, effective from July 1, 2018, there will be a reduction of tariffs on imported vehicles and car parts. Tariff rates on vehicles will be reduced from their current levels of 20% and 25%, down to 15%. Even after the adjustment, tariffs will remain higher than in developed countries such as Europe, the United States and Japan. Moreover, the final price of imported cars will also be subject to VAT, consumption tax, dealer profits, and other factors. While the tariff cuts may initially have a short-term stimulating effect on sales of imported vehicles, their impact is not forecasted to be significant in the long run. In an environment where foreign investment restrictions are gradually being lifted, foreign automakers seeking to become more competitive will need to take into consideration the relative costs and factors – economic and non-economic – of establishing or acquiring a wholly-owned local automaker compared with the option of exporting vehicles to China under a lower tariff regime.
3. Difficulties in Going Solo
One of the Chinese government’s original intentions in formulating the automotive joint venture policy was a “market-for-technology” strategy. In return for providing their technology, foreign automakers have gained Chinese market share through their partnerships with China’s central and local SOEs and large-scale private enterprises. In addition, the foreign automakers have obtained special support and benefits in aspects such as regulatory approvals, land acquisition and factory construction, fiscal subsidy and tax preferential treatment, and so on, without which their foreign automotive products might not even have been brought into China. If, after removal of the foreign shareholding cap, a foreign automaker chooses to operate completely independently and without the support of Chinese partners, there is no certainty that they will continue to enjoy such special benefits. Specifically, approvals for new energy vehicle manufacturing are currently on hold and there are unlikely to be many more licenses issued to manufacture traditional fuel vehicles. While it is anticipated that the approval process for new energy vehicles will recommence soon, it seems likely that entry thresholds will rise substantially. Against this background, it may be unwise for foreign automakers to abandon their current joint ventures and start over on their own. Building an automobile sales and after-sales network is a costly and time-consuming process, further complicated by the range of differing local business environments around China. Without Chinese partners to help navigate local markets, foreign automakers will likely face barriers to a quick set-up and roll out of sales and after-sales networks, particularly on dealing with the existing dealers of the JV Automakers and balancing their relationships and interests.
* * * * *
In the decades since Automotive JVs were first established, there have been numerous reforms to the legal environment as well as changes in the range of products offered, fluctuating market conditions, the introduction of new domestic brands, increases in labor and other production costs, a shifting international business environment, and the emergence of new energy cars. As is so often the case in China, the only constant is change itself.