Volkswagen cars
File photo: Volkswagen cars are pictured during a final quality control at the Volkswagen plant in Wolfsburg, Germany. Image Credit: AP

Berlin: European carmakers’ share rally this year might hit a roadblock as a US probe of auto imports raises the potential of new tariffs, with underperforming German manufacturers particularly at risk.

US Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross submitted a report to President Donald Trump on whether vehicles made abroad pose a national-security risk, according to a statement Sunday. Trump will have 90 days for any response and, if he says he’ll move forward with measures under Department of Commerce recommendations, another 15 days to act. While government officials haven’t outlined any conclusions, the announcement sent automotive stocks down Monday in one of the two worst segment performance on Europe’s main share gauge.

Car producers’ and suppliers’ shares in Europe have risen in 2019 — though the slide on Monday narrowed the Stoxx 600 automotive index’s year-to-date gain to 8.8 per cent — amid optimism that the US-Chinese talks will resolve a dispute hampering the industry worldwide. BMW AG and Volkswagen AG have lagged behind as the German companies grapple with weakening demand in their home region and China.

Even with this year’s bounce, the industry still trades at a depressed valuation, with a price-to-earnings ratio of 6.6 that’s by far the lowest among all the sectors in Europe. And the automotive gauge is down 24 per cent from a year ago. That’s a little before Trump began tweeting threats to tax German makers’ vehicles, though he’d complained since mid-2017 about the cars’ presence on US streets. At the Munich Security Conference on Saturday, German Chancellor Angela Merkel rejected the idea that her country’s autos pose a security risk to the US.

Volkswagen dropped 1.5 per cent as of 10:50am in Frankfurt, Daimler AG fell 0.9 per cent and BMW was down 0.5 per cent. Among component suppliers, tiremaker Pirelli & C. slid 1.4 per cent while Faurecia declined 1.1 per cent.

While Trump and European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker agreed in July to hold off on new tariffs during discussions to resolve an American-European dispute, the US leader’s repeated tweets may indicate he’s primed to add import fees especially targeted at cars from the bloc, according to analysts.

“The risk that tariffs between Europe and the US will come is rather high — I would say slightly more than 50 per cent,” Juergen Pieper, an analyst at Frankfurt-based Bankhaus Metzler, said in an email. “Trump seems to have a real problem with German cars.”

The European Union estimated in June that a 25 per cent tariff would add about 10,000 euros (Dh41,504; $11,300) to the sticker price of a car made in the bloc and sold in the US, and would cut American purchases of vehicles and parts in half. The Munich-based IFO Institute’s Center for International Economics calculates that an import fee of that size would cut German car sales to the US by almost 50 per cent, or about 17 billion euros, eroding total auto exports by 7.7 per cent.

Volkswagen, the world’s largest automaking group, and Daimler’s Mercedes-Benz brand and BMW, the two biggest makers of luxury cars, have the most at stake from any US trade penalties, even as they’ve reduced the need to bring in vehicles by building American plants. The US is the second-largest market for both Mercedes-Benz Cars and BMW, while Volkswagen’s luxury Porsche and Audi nameplates import all their American-sold autos.

France’s Renault SA and PSA Group, the owner of the Peugeot and Citroen marques, don’t sell vehicles in the US PSA shares have outperformed the European automotive benchmark in the past 12 months, while among carmakers with a US presence, Daimler has posted the gauge’s worst decline.

Car and component exports from the EU to the US totalled $62.5 billion in 2017 while imports amounted to $17.7 billion, according to a Feb. 15 note by Bernd Weidensteiner, an economist at Commerzbank AG. Germany accounted for $30.5 billion of the outbound figure, though only $8.5 billion of purchases from the US.

Even as American imports have declined in recent years as manufacturers established significant US production, the German surplus of $22 billion is “a particular thorn in the side of President Trump,” he said.

— Bloomberg