Thursday, 22 Oct 2020

Ghosn Arrest Exposes Stress in Japanese-French Auto Marriage

There is probably never a good time for an auto empire to have its leader thrown in jail. But for Nissan and Renault, the arrest of Carlos Ghosn comes at an especially inopportune moment.

The two carmakers can ill afford turmoil in the alliance headed by Mr. Ghosn when the global auto market is entering a downturn, a trade war provoked by the Trump administration is interfering with supply chains and Silicon Valley is spawning well-financed new competitors.

Mr. Ghosn’s arrest in Tokyo this week on suspicion that he deceived Japanese authorities about his pay package, exposed deep fissures in the union between Renault and Nissan that he engineered in 1999, and which Mitsubishi Motors joined in 2016.

Whatever the outcome of legal proceedings against Mr. Ghosn, he is unlikely to regain his previous stature. Instead, analysts said, there could be a destructive power struggle within the alliance as Nissan tries to assert more control. Renault has been the dominant partner of the three carmakers even though Nissan sells more cars, a state of affairs that appears to rankle executives in Tokyo.

Hiroto Saikawa, the chief executive of Nissan, made no attempt to disguise his enmity toward Mr. Ghosn after his arrest Monday. Even though Mr. Ghosn has not been formally charged with a crime, Mr. Saikawa told reporters Monday that his boss’s behavior had been intolerable and he would recommend his removal as the company’s chairman.

The Nissan board followed through on Thursday with a unanimous vote to remove Mr. Ghosn as chairman and to eliminate Greg Kelly, a board member and former human resources director, who has also been implicated in the financial misconduct allegation. Mr. Ghosn stepped down as Nissan’s chief executive last year, but remained chairman and continued to lead the alliance, also serving as chairman at Mitsubishi, and chairman and chief executive at Renault.

The board also emphasized, in a statement, that “the long-standing Alliance partnership with Renault remains unchanged and that the mission is to minimize the potential impact and confusion on the day-to-day cooperation among the Alliance partners.”

The statement was telling — and fell in line with the economic realities of the industry. Regardless of whatever problems the two carmakers may be having in their relationship, analysts say, they would be in much worse shape alone. Other car companies are trying to get bigger, joining forces with onetime rivals so they can share the enormous costs of developing electric, so-called self-driving cars.

Fiat Chrysler Automobiles has made no secret about its desire to merge with another big carmaker. Ford and Volkswagen are discussing cooperation on the production of commercial vehicles. Honda and General Motors have formed a partnership to develop autonomous vehicles.

“Breaking the alliance would be a very negative thing for all of the parties,” said Felipe Munoz, global analyst at JATO Dynamics, a market research firm. “Carmakers are realizing that being alone is more difficult. Going out of the alliance would be going against the trend.”

Even without the turmoil caused by Mr. Ghosn’s arrest, Nissan and Renault were facing serious problems. Both suffered declines in sales and profits this year. Nissan revenue fell 2.6 percent from July through September, to 2.8 trillion yen or $25 billion. The company sold 1.4 million cars worldwide, a 1 percent decline, and profit fell 8 percent to 130 billion yen.

Renault reported a 6 percent decrease in revenue from July through September, to €11.5 billion or $13 billion including its stake in a Russian carmaker. Sales of Renault brand cars fell 5 percent to 492,000 vehicles. Renault did not report profit for the quarter but said its net income in the first half of 2018 fell 16 percent to €2 billion.

To some extent the companies were victims of circumstances beyond their control. Nissan was hit by slowdowns in the United States and China, the world’s two biggest car markets. Renault suffered from declines in emerging markets like Africa and India. Renault also felt some collateral damage in a geopolitical conflict after it bet big on Iran, then was forced to withdraw after the United States restored sanctions.

But analysts also question company strategies that Mr. Ghosn, the dominant personality at Nissan, Renault, Mitsubishi and the alliance among them, championed. The United States is a prominent example.

Nissan has long been perceived as the No. 3 Japanese automaker in America after Toyota and Honda. As the auto industry recovered after the 2008 recession, Mr. Ghosn laid out a new global strategy that called for increasing the company’s U.S. market share to more than 10 percent — about a 50 percent increase from 2007 — in hopes of pushing past Honda.

To drive sales, Nissan heavily discounted prices, often in ways that caused dealers to lose money on some sales. Under a strategy called “Grow or Go,” it pushed small dealerships to sell or close their franchises. At the same time it favored certain “preferred” dealers by secretly paying them up to $1 million or more to help them build plush, new showrooms.

While Nissan has achieved its market share goal, it has also alienated many dealers, and even some who were profitable sold their franchises because of the company’s practices.

And this year, with overall United States sales flat, Nissan’s sales have declined 6.5 percent through October. It has been particularly hard hit by slumping sales of sedans.

“They have increased market share,” said Michelle Krebs, executive analyst at Autotrader, an online buying and selling platform. “But they have not done it in a way that is healthy.”

Nissan is not in a good position now that the United States market is losing steam, Ms. Krebs said.

“Car sales are edging downward,” she said. “Other carmakers are ramping up their incentives. Where have they got to go? They already have big incentives.”

Renault would be in an even weaker position as a stand-alone company. It is a minor player in China and has no presence in the United States. Without a substantial footprint in those two giant markets, it has little hope of achieving the scale needed to bargain for the best prices from suppliers and invest in new technologies.

All traditional carmakers are trying to maintain their existing businesses, rooted in internal combustion engines, and at the same time they are investing heavily to develop autonomous, electric vehicles. Those new products are not yet generating profits, and there is competition from companies like Uber and Google, which are using their formidable financial resources to move into the car companies’ turf.

Car companies also face higher prices for steel and aluminum because of tariffs that President Trump has imposed on imports from foreign producers. And the levies he has imposed on Chinese goods, prompting retaliatory tariffs from China, have interfered with the flow of car parts.

Those challenges may help explain why Renault has been more reluctant than Nissan to cut Mr. Ghosn loose. The company appointed an interim replacement, Thierry Bolloré, the company’s chief operating officer. But Mr. Ghosn remains chief executive even though he occupies a jail cell in Tokyo, apparently prohibited even from communicating with his family.

Sooner or later, though, the companies will not be able to avoid a painful re-examination of their relationship.

“We have seen there are differences,” Mr. Munoz of JATO Dynamics said, “as beautiful as it seemed when Ghosn was in charge.”

Reporting was contributed by Neal E. Boudette in Ann Arbor, Mich.

Follow Jack Ewing on Twitter: @JackEwingNYT

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