TOKYO -- The world's major automakers are tightening their focus on the Asia/Pacific region these days -- and with good cause. Note that:
*Corp. expects its Asian sales next year will outpace those in Europe, with Southeast Asia offering the biggest potential.
* Thailand is now the third biggest market forMotor Corp. in the world, after Japan and the U.S., and Motor Co. Ltd. plans to double its Asian sales outside Japan by the year 2000.
* At least five major automakers are considering or planning special vehicles tailored to Asia/Pacific tastes or needs, andMotor Co. Ltd. already sells one.
* The rush of foreign automakers into India is becoming a stampede.
* A fierce fight for Chinese footholds is heating up.Corp. recently got the nod to make sedans in Shanghai and Mercedes-Benz AG won a coveted minivan contract in south China.
Nor do these moves take into account increasing foreign pressure on South Koreans to open their market or the ambitions of Detroit's Big Three in Japan's domestic market, the second largest in the world.
In most of Asia, U.S. and European automakers will find it hard slogging because Japanese competitors, carefully sinking roots in the region for several years, appear to have a clear edge. The only major exception, so far at least, is China.
"The Japanese have a good head start in Asia. U.S. and European automakers will have to concentrate on what's left," says Matthew Ruddick, an industry analyst with James Capel Pacific in Tokyo.
Yet in many Asian countries, the problem is fast becoming one of "excessive competition" as more producers and importers jump in than domestic markets can sustain.
JAPAN: For sheer size, nothing in Asia comes close to this market where sales peaked in 1990 at 7.7 million units before plummeting after the economic "bubble" burst. Now? "A very subdued recovery is under way in Japan," says Mr. Ruddick.
Japan and the Japanese are still hung over from "bubble era" excesses and a four-year economic slump. Total vehicle sales (including minis) may rise 4% or so this year to 6.8 million units and increase marginally in 1996.
The days of exuberant growth are over. The market has matured and become cyclical, dependent on a lengthening replacement cycle that now exceeds 5.3 years.
The big passion these days is for RVs, Japanese short-hand for "recreational vehicles," an unclear classification that runs from small sport/utility vehicles (SUVs) to vans and accounts for anywhere from 20% to 30% of light vehicle sales.
The industry is still plagued by excess capacity estimated at 2.5 to 3 million units, and there is increasing speculation about restructuring and reducing the number of vehicle makers, now 11.
What's most encouraging from Japan's viewpoint is the recently weakening yen. Based on one rough calculation, a drop of one yen in the exchange rate against the dollar boosts annual profits for the eight largest vehicle makers by 38 billion [yen] ($3 80 million). "Everyone is revising profits upward," says Koji Endo, vice president of Morgan Stanley Japan. ", and Mitsubishi are all doing better than originally expected."
He adds that partsmakers have born the brunt of the rationalization programs, and says most dealers are still losing money.
Although Washington and Detroit may disagree, Japan's auto market has opened up and the U.S. Big Three are making impressive gains -- an estimated 30% rise in 1995, with another 30% hike expected next year. Import market share is fast approaching 10% and may grow larger as Japanese motorists opt for more variety.
Motor Co. expects sales in Japan will almost double to 22,000 units this year and rise to 35,000 in 1996 helped by a right-hand-drive (RHD) Taurus and other RHD models. Corp. foresees a 10% increase to 15,000 units in 1995 and is aiming for a jump to 25,000 units next year.
Corp. expects sales to increase 45% this year to 43,000, almost 75% supplied by its Adam Opel AG subsidiary, but declines to estimate 1996 performance. GM's Japanese sales get a boost in January when begins selling imported and re-badged Chevrolet Cavaliers with a target of 20,000 sales per year.
SOUTH KOREA: The second largest Asia/Pacific market is still the private preserve of its domestic automakers, but foreign pressure is growing to force the door open.
"Korea is likely to get even more market-opening pressure from Europe than the United States since the Koreans are clobbering their automobile markets," says a foreign analyst in Seoul.
Korean trade negotiators, nervous about U.S. threats to invoke sanctions against the Japanese, recently lowered taxes and promised to end what many consider the number one barrier: the bias against foreign cars reflected regularly in South Korea's media, which tends to frighten off would-be buyers.
Imports so far have been insignificant -- around 4,000 units in 1994, 0.2% of domestic sales totaling 1.5 million. The home market is expected to absorb around 1.7 million units in 1996 and up to 2 million in the year 2000, but the import share is uncertain.
believes now is the time to start trying harder, starting with a retail financing venture and aiming at a distribution network. But "If the door is opened for U.S. vehicles, it must be open to Japanese makes as well," says Morgan Stanley's Mr. Endo. Because the prospect of Japanese competition terrifies Korean automakers, Mr. Endo does not foresee substantial foreign intrusion for many years.
THAILAND: Sales in the biggest automotive market in Southeast Asia are expected to boom to 550,000 this year and head for an estimated 850,000 to 1 million annually in the year 2000. "Demand is so strong that almost every Japanese auto and partsmaker in Thailand is doubling capacity," says Capel's Ruddick.
Thailand is not only one of the fastest growing vehicle markets in the world, but an export base as well. Next year Honda will begin making its "Asia car" there. Toyota opens a second plant in February and by 1997 will be making more cars in Thailand than in the United Kingdom.
Thailand has 12 assembly plants but, so far, only one is American: a joint venture making Chrysler's Jeep Cherokee.
Ford plans a joint venture with Mazda to make pickup trucks beginning in 1998, and GM has professed interest in assembling pickups and possibly a small car.
But the future, as well as the past and present, seems to belong to the Japanese.
Japanese automakers not only dominate the market but are surrounded by a stable of Japanese parts producers.
TAIWAN: The automotive tangle in "the other China" is worsening.
Vehicle sales, around 540,000 units this year, will probably hit 580,000 in 1996 shared by 12 automakers.
"Only four companies are making money, and it's now a poker game to see who has the deepest pockets," says Larry Wong, president of Ford Lio Ho, the industry leader with a 21% market share.
Imports account for around a third of sales and are growing. Domestic output of 410,000 is far below installed capacity of 640,000. Yet a shakeout among assemblers, however much overdue, will be resisted.
"No one is willing to abandon their assembly lines," says Abraham Leu, an analyst with Jardine Fleming Securities in Taipei.
Taiwan's admission to the World Trade Organization (WTO) is expected next year, which means opening the market to direct import of Japanese and Korean makes. However, the impact probably will be cushioned with quotas and restrictions.
Speculation about Japanese "end runs" from Taiwan into China is dying down. Analysts feel pragmatism will prevail in Beijing, where antipathy toward Japan will be supplanted by a desire to have Japan's world-class producers in the country.
"Direct landings in China by Japanese producers are more likely," says Mr. Endo.
CHINA: No one, including Beijing leaders, seems to know what will happen next in China, so plans to modernize the automotive industry are confusing and sometimes contradictory with the players still being sorted out.
Only small gains are expected in 1995, with output of trucks, buses and cars rising from 1.28 million to around 1.45 million.
Production next year "should increase," says Zhu Wei, a market analyst with A.T. Kearny in Beijing. He notes that 1996 is the first year in China's Ninth Five Year Economic Plan 1996-2000 and says "Everything is always very beautiful in the first two years."
But so far Beijing leaders cannot agree on the details of plans to consolidate more than 120 assemblers into a few high-volume producers nor on who should produce precisely which vehicles where.
And industry analysts question whether many -- or any -- producers in China are making real profits. With cars priced above international levels and trucks below them, Mr. Wei says "prices are artificial" and profitability is hard to peg.
"There's no need to hurry into China. It's hard to see a profit for automakers there, and the Japanese may be fortunate to be left out so far," adds Mr. Ruddick.
Yet even though Beijing may begin phasing out key incentives for foreign investment, there's no shortage of automakers eager to establish joint ventures in China. The "wannabees" include Ford,, Porsche, Toyota, Nissan, Honda, Mitsubishi, and Daewoo.
INDIA: Since economic liberalization in 1991, India has fast become one of the most exciting automotive markets in the world and is now attracting unprecedented attention from major automakers.
Although poverty is endemic and the mass market is still for two-wheelers, demand for bigger vehicles is picking up as a middle class of 150 million to 200 million emerges.
Sales in the 1994/'95 year ended last March 31 reached 476,000 vehicles including 246,415 cars, and growth of 25% or more is foreseen for both 1995/'96 and 1996/'97. By the year 2000, some analysts see sales of cars, SUVs and commercial vehicles reaching 1.2 million units.
Maruti Udyog, a joint venture with Suzuki Motor Co. Ltd., has enjoyed 70% or more of the car market, but this dominance is ending. A Daewoo Motor Corp. joint venture began assembling and selling last summer, and GM, Peugeot, Fiat, Ford and Mercedes-Benz are expected to begin joint venture assembly in 1996.
Volkswagen AG is negotiating a partnership and Mitsubishi Motors Corp. and Honda are crowding into the joint venture parade while Rover,AG, Chrysler and AB Volvo have similar ambitions.
"Not all can succeed. Supply will soon exceed demand and a shakeout is inevitable," says Upal Seth, director of Insight Asset Management in Bombay, citing a shortage of good parts suppliers and foreign exchange volatility as other serious problems.
Consequently, for the next few years India promises to be an automotive battle zone.