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ESG Industry Report Card: Autos And Auto Parts


The automotive industry has relatively high exposure to environmental risk, while social risks could become more relevant over the longer term due to changing consumer habits.

Environmental regulation is leading the global auto industry toward carbon dioxide (CO2) neutral vehicle production.

Sizable investments in technologies and new products are already putting operating margins and free cash flow under pressure.

Consumer acceptance of electric vehicles will be key to manufacturers achieving CO2 targets and will be dependent on incentives by governments, improvement in vehicle performance (range in particular), and infrastructure availability.

Sizable litigation-linked fines related to unlawful cartel agreements or software manipulation (such as "dieselgate") could further burden companies' cash flow and reduce headroom under the ratings for many issuers.

The ESG Risk Atlas

May. 13 2019 — To calibrate the relative ranking of sectors, we use our environmental, social, and governance (ESG) Risk Atlas (see "The ESG Risk Atlas: Sector And Regional Rationales And Scores," published May 13, 2019). The Risk Atlas provides a relative ranking of industries in terms of exposure to environmental and social risks (and opportunities). The sector risk atlas charts (shown below) combine each sector's exposure to environmental and social risks, scoring it on a scale of 1 to 6. A score closer to 1 represents a relatively low exposure, while 6 indicates a high sectorwide exposure to environmental and social risk factors (for details see the Appendix). This report card expands further on the Risk Atlas sector analysis by focusing on the credit-specific impacts, which in turn forms the basis for analyzing the exposures and opportunities of individual companies in the sector.

Environmental Exposure (Risk Atlas: 4)

The automotive sector has relatively high exposure to environmental risk. In three of the most critical markets globally, China, Europe, and the U.S., which together account for roughly 70% of annual global sales, environmental regulation is driving the industry toward carbon-neutral vehicle production. China has enacted regulations that limit average fleet CO2 emissions to 117 g/km, Europe to 95 g/km, and the U.S. to 119 g/km by 2021.

During 2018, many European carmakers reported a widening gap between actual emissions and the regulatory targets, due to the combination of a switch from diesel to CO2-heavy petrol and a shift of consumers' preference toward higher-emitting sport utility vehicles (SUVs). In addition to CO2, automakers are exposed to regulations on nitrogen oxides (NOx) for diesel cars and particulate matter (PM). Some cities in Europe have already implemented city-center bans for old diesel cars. Consumers' increasing aversion to diesel, in particular in Europe, adds to the challenges in achieving CO2 emission targets in 2020 and exposes automakers to potentially significant fines. Based on the current gap between actual emissions and targets (around 25 g/km in the EU), we estimate that fines could depress operating profits for all automakers with sizable operations in the EU. We identify CO2 as a major risk for the profitability of automakers.

Compliance with environmental targets and transition to electric cars has demanded sizable investments from automakers and suppliers in technologies and new products, and we see this trend persisting over the next three years. We expect the return on these investments to be lower compared with petrol- or diesel-fueled vehicles until demand for electric vehicles reaches sufficient scale and battery costs decline further. In the meantime, we expect pressure on operating margins and free cash flows, as the industry's average research and development (R&D) and capital expenditure (capex) in 2019-2021 is likely to increase above the 2016-2018 level of 10%-11% of sales. At the same time, the pace of adoption of electric vehicles remains uncertain, since consumer acceptance will depend on government incentives, evolution of battery costs and range, as well as infrastructure suitability.

Social Exposure (Risk Atlas: 4)

We believe rating sensitivity to social risks could become more relevant over the longer term and is linked to changing consumer habits and preferences for mobility services that could jeopardize the traditional ownership model and support emerging ones. Automakers will face growing competition from technology firms that are developing applications to cater to demand for mobility services. Moreover, to the extent that autonomous driving becomes profitable, businesses will push the application of this technology.

As a major employer, the automotive sector has a critical role to play for communities and governments, as evidenced by the latter's political support to the local industry. On the downside, the industry has contributed to the threat of increased trade barriers, such those potentially from the U.S. on European car imports. We have estimated such tariffs could reduce EBITDA by 15% for the top six European carmakers. As such, the sector is vulnerable to shifting political landscapes that can disrupt the otherwise highly efficient supply networks.

Subsequently, the workforce of automotive companies is vulnerable to sudden plant closures, and therefore the sector has a greater frequency of strikes from the highly unionized workforce.

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