University of Michigan Report Finds Focus on Fuel Economy Would Be Very Profitable for Detroit 3; Says Rapid, Wide-Reaching Change in Business Models Required for Turnaround
|According to the study, higher fuel economy standards would benefit the Detroit 3 automakers the most. Source: McManus and Kleinbaum. Click to enlarge.
A new report released by the University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute (UMTRI) analyzes critical choices faced by automakers and finds that broad, deep, fast change is necessary for success in the context of the worst financial crisis in the history of the domestic automobile industry.
According to the report, “Fixing Detroit: How Far, How Fast, How Fuel Efficient?” successful turnarounds hinge on rapid cultural transformation, which requires replacement of management teams. Further, the report finds that the existing culture within the domestic auto companies systematically underestimates the value of fuel economy, which has crippled profitability.
Modeling the impact of increased fuel economy standards, the study finds that an industry-wide mandated increase in fuel economy of 30% to 50% (35 miles per gallon to 40.4 mpg) would increase Detroit automakers’ gross profits by roughly $3 billion per year and increase sales by the equivalent of two large assembly plans. The chance that increased profits could exceed $6 billion is 18% if fuel economy standards were increased to 40.4 mpg, but only 6% if standards remain at the mandated 35 mpg.
Our findings support rapid, wide-reaching change in business models. The key to a long-term recovery is executing an excellent portfolio of products, and we find that increasing fuel economy standards will lead to a portfolio of products that is more likely to raise the profits of the Detroit 3 automakers than to lower them.—Walter McManus, director of UMTRI’s Automotive Analysis Division and co-author of the report
Rob Kleinbaum, a former GM employee and consultant and report co-author, said the industry attitude about fuel economy is symptomatic of its current culture.
For years it has discounted consumer research results when calculating the benefits of improving fuel economy, often by as much as two thirds. If GM had followed its own market research results over the last three decades, they would not be in Chapter 11 today.—Rob Kleinbaum
The authors analyzed extensive literature on the successful turnaround of six international companies of comparable size, diversity and distress to the domestic automobile industry. Research revealed universal approaches critical to success:
- Implement Broad, Deep, Fast Change: All successful efforts addressed the fundamental issues that drove them into crisis and they did it as fast as possible.
- Replace Management Team: In addition to changes in strategy and structure, in all cases there were widespread changes in management.
- Transform Culture: All of the successful companies considered changing culture a critical requirement and made it a top priority for success.
- Build a Portfolio of Excellent Products: The path to long-term financial health of any company rests on having a great product portfolio. Our domestic auto industry, in its modern incarnation, has never been able to execute an excellent portfolio, only isolated successes.
Fuel Economy. The report models the impact of three different fuel economy standard increases—30% (35 mpg), 40% (37.7 mpg) and 50% (40.4 mpg)&madsh;on the profitability and sales of the industry and separately for the Detroit 3, the Japan 3, and all others. The model captures the cost of fuel economy improvement on suppliers, its impact on pricing and the resulting changes in demand. The inputs to the model are the most recent and accepted estimates of all the key parameters, but since there is debate on many of these values, the report conducts an extensive sensitivity analysis on the results.
Modeling results include:
- The Detroit 3 gain profits over base in all scenarios, with the largest profits gained from pursuing more aggressive fuel economy.
- Japanese automakers’ profit gains are smaller than the Detroit 3, with the smallest profits gained from pursuing a 50% increase (40.4 mpg) in fuel economy.
- At a 50% increase, the Japanese industry loses sales while the domestic industry continues to gain in sales and profitability—a result driven by the different starting points.
The value given to fuel economy by automakers has critical impact moving forward. According to the report:
- There is compelling evidence that the Detroit 3 have systematically underestimated the value of fuel economy to customers.
- Because Detroit 3 automakers have long underestimated the consumer value of fuel economy, raising fuel economy standards will not cost more than consumers would be willing to pay.
- In every scenario, the average cost per vehicle (direct plus indirect) is less than what consumers would be willing to pay.
In a sensitivity analysis conducted on inputs to the model, the report finds:
- The chance that increased profits could exceed $6 billion is 18% for a 50% increase (40.4 mpg) in fuel economy, but only 6% for a 30 percent increase (35 mpg).
- There is a 7% chance that profits would be less than zero if fuel economy standards were increased to 35 mpg, and a 15% chance of profit loss if standards were increased to 40.4 mpg.
- Three of the factors had extreme values capable of generating a drop in Detroit 3 profits: a gasoline price of $1.50 per gallon (a price not seen since 1999); extremely low consumer response to fuel costs relative to vehicle prices; and direct manufacturing costs (materials and labor) that are more than twice the estimates used by McManus and Kleinbaum and three-to-four times National Research Council estimates (adjusted for inflation).
The sensitivity analysis of the impacts on profits showed that only a few factors could reverse our finding that profits of the Detroit 3 automakers would increase under higher fuel economy standards: relative value consumers put on fuel costs compared to vehicle price, the future price of fuel, and the level of direct costs to improve fuel economy. While the three factors could result in losses rather than gains in profits, the potential losses are relatively small, and all three factors have much more upside than downside. The total risk and reward profile of these scenarios is very positive, with only a small chance of losing and a very large probability of gain.—McManus and Kleinbaum (2009)
The new report builds on studies published by UMTRI beginning in 2005 predicting that the three biggest domestic automakers stood to lose billions in profits and thousands of jobs in the event of an oil spike—a prediction borne out as Hurricane Katrina and tensions around the world sent prices skyward. The studies documented the financial risks to Detroit automakers and the risks to American jobs of higher fuel prices, and predicted that gas prices more than $3 per gallon could lead to combined losses of $7 billion to $11 billion of profits for Detroit automakers.
By the time gasoline prices spiked to more than $4 a gallon in July of last year, Ford and GM had already reported combined losses on their automotive operations of more than $57.2 billion. And through the first quarter of this year their cumulative automotive operations losses since 2004 total $83.6 billion. In addition, they have lost 14.2 points of market share since 2004 (GM down 8.8 points and Ford down 5.4 points).
Walter McManus and Rob Kleinbaum (2009) Fixing Detroit: How Far, How Fast, How Fuel Efficient? (UMTRI-2009-26)