The Original Equipment Suppliers Association (OESA) held its 19th Annual Conference this week in suburban Detroit under the theme:  “The Industry’s New Landscape.”  And while much of the day was devoted to autonomous vehicle developments and the potential negative impacts on the industry’s North American competitiveness that would result from substantial changes to NAFTA, the afternoon session included a robust discussion of today’s strong market in North America and the more guarded outlook for 2018 and beyond.

 During this session, Mike Jackson, Executive Director of Strategy and Research for the OESA moderated a panel called “Cycle Dynamics:  The Industry Outlook Panel,” comprised of a leading automotive forecaster, a leading Wall Street analyst and the lead economist for one of the world’s largest OEMs.  While the panel remained fairly optimistic about the near term, the longer term theme was that the automotive industry is cyclical and the next down cycle is SOMEWHERE OUT THERE …

The panelists included Dr. G. Mustafa Mohatarem, Chief Economist, General Motors; John Murphy, Managing Director, U.S. Autos Equity Research, Bank of America Merrill Lynch; and Michael Robinet, Managing Director, Automotive Advisory Services, IHS Markit.

Dr. Mohatarem began with a very optimistic evaluation of the global economy, referring to our current condition as a “global synchronous expansion.”  Not only is the U.S. economy strong, but China’s growth has exceeded recent expectations, the EU has experienced a mini-boom after dodging a debt crisis, India continues to grow steadily and Russia and Brazil’s recessions have ended.  He noted that the current U.S. production rate is 17.4 -17.5 million units for 2017, a healthy market if not quite as healthy as last year.  On the cautionary side, he noted a potentially more hawkish bent to Fed policy and a significant labor shortage that will continue to dog the U.S. automotive industry.  On the whole though, he noted: “this is a very favorable time for the global automotive industry.”

Mike Robinet summed up current supplier sentiment as follows:  suppliers see the demand and the market opportunities out there, but there will be a lot of disruptors that can derail them.  These disruptors include the impact of “ACES” (Autonomous, Connected, Electrified and Shared), the emergence of “Super Tier 1’s” who may dominate the future landscape with their integration capabilities (leaving other suppliers behind potentially), shifting trade winds, indecision about U.S. regulatory policy including CAFÉ standards, and an acceleration of the planning cycle that creates execution risk.  He noted that the cadence of model changes has kept the supply base on its toes this year, as has the adjustment to the continuing decline in sedan sales (which was viewed by the panel as a continuing trend into the future).  Will the internal combustion engine disappear soon?  According to Robinet, 95% of the vehicles in North America will have an engine on board by 2025.  Places like China will see a faster adoption of EVs during this period, he noted, including as a result of government policies promoting them. He ended by cautioning suppliers not to focus too much on the “nirvana” of Level 5 autonomy, but rather to focus on the movement to Level 3 and 4 in the shorter term and try to find their place in those realms.

John Murphy, more bullish in recent times, conceded that he has “moderated his outlook a bit.”  Murphy noted that leasing is helping support current demand, but worries about the upcoming impacts on the used car market as those vehicles come off lease (which he referred to as a “tsunami” that will hit in 2018 and beyond).  He noted that vehicle pricing is also starting to moderate (unrelated to just mix), and that the CUV market is getting very crowded.  He described three “Big Bangs” that will shape the industry in the future:  The increase in the Efficiency of Travel (cost per mile), the impact of Autonomous Mobility On Demand on the ease and cost of travel, and the increase in Speed of Travel.  Only the latter will provide a material economic stimulus – the first two will provide only a marginal or moderate stimulus – but all three Big Bangs will significantly impact the automotive industry.   But, before these Big Bangs reach their full impact, Murphy sees a downturn within the next two years taking U.S. volume down below the 14 million unit level (compared to the miserable 9 million level reached during the Great Recession).  During the Q&A session that followed, Murphy noted that he expects EV penetration in the U.S. to reach 10% by 2025 (slightly more optimistic than Mike Robinet’s prediction).  He also noted his perception that we are not experiencing an auto technology valuation bubble despite the recent eye-popping valuations in this space (no irrational exuberance here!).

On the whole, the panel’s 2018 and beyond outlook is for an automotive supply industry in North America that continues to be good, with significant challenges and disruptors that must be overcome by those automotive suppliers who will flourish in the long term.