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China siphons the tanks of Western auto makers

It's not just South Korea that worries Ford, it's Brazil, China and India, too. When Stephen Harper rebuked Ford for its criticism of the Canada-South Korea trade pact, he probably reckoned it was just a little local grumbling from a factory in Ontario. But at last week's Geneva motor show, Ford's bosses were scanning the globe and what they saw was not pretty. The emerging markets are long on car assembly and a bit short on customers, which means a new threat for North American and Canadian auto companies seeking a respite from ruinous competition at home.

Forecasts of explosive growth in car ownership across the BRICS have been overdone, says Ford's chief operating officer, Mark Fields. Speaking to the press in Geneva, he said that too much capacity had been built in emerging markets, such as Brazil, Russia and India, in the expectation of double-digit percentage growth. In the wake of huge investments, sales in those three markets turned negative last year for the first time in a decade.

It's not just a battle between America, Europe, Japan and South Korea, seeking to carve up the world with their imperial brands. Add to the usual suspects a slew of new players in China which are not just capitalizing on the aspirations of China's expanding middle class but venturing overseas, even as far afield as Europe. Squeezed between the mighty Italian stallions and German limos at the Geneva show was a more modest mid-market hatchback with an unknown brand, Qoros. A joint venture between Chinese manufacturer Chery and Israel Corp., a Tel Aviv-based investment company, Qoros has a factory near Shanghai with a capacity of 150,000 vehicles a year and plans to expand to 350,000 units. The new hatchback is squarely targeted at the market segment occupied by Volkswagen's Golf and the Ford Focus, and and the European sales pitch will start in Slovakia.

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Meanwhile, Chinese rival Dongfeng Motor is injecting funds into the ailing Peugeot-Citroen which followed the buyout of Volvo by Zhejiang Geely in 2010. If the Chinese are dipping their toes in the battered European car market, it may not be because they expect to make big profits. Rather, they are testing their products against the competition in the hope of achieving bigger commercial prizes in other emerging markets coveted by the big Western brands.

According to KPMG's 2014 automotive industry survey, the big push overseas by BRIC motor manufacturers is about to begin. China will achieve annual exports of two million cars within two years, say almost half of the survey's respondents, twice as many as predicted in 2013. Meanwhile, three-quarters of the survey's respondents see a very high risk of car manufacturing overcapacity in the triad markets of North America, Europe and industrialized Asia. That will mean that competition for customers will focus on the BRICS, and other emerging markets in Asia, Africa, Latin America and Eastern Europe.

Short-sighted and blinkered, failing to see the big picture. Stephen Harper didn't use those words but that was the gist of his retort to Ford, and it may be that the message coming from Ontario was part of an even bigger trade picture. It's a world in which established motor companies, like Ford or Fiat-Chrysler cannot afford to to get their investments wrong, not to mention putting them in the wrong location.

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About the Author

Carl Mortished is a Canadian financial journalist and freelance consultant based in the U.K. With a career spanning investment banking, journalism and consulting for global companies, he was for many years a financial writer and columnist for The Times of London. More

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