NEWS ANALYSIS: Saab, Volvo can't survive on their own
Parent companies of Swedish carmakers will have trouble finding buyers for the brands
December 8, 2008 - 12:01 am ET
As Ford Motor and General Motors consider selling their Swedish brands, Volvo's long-term future seems brighter than Saab's.
-- Volvo has a newer, more diverse model lineup and is three times larger than Saab
-- Volvo has more r&d capabilities to produce its own cars
-- Saab has rarely been profitable since GM bought it while Volvo has made a lot of money for Ford
-- Volvo's parent company is in a better position than Saab's.
The differences between the two are reflected in the likely values of the brands.
Saab is worth about €100 million and Volvo about €2 billion, according to media reports. The question is: Who would want to buy either brand?
Lars Holmqvist, CEO of CLEPA, the European suppliers association, believes it will be very difficult to find a buyer for Volvo.
"Who in their right mind would buy a car company that is losing half a billion [dollars] a quarter and is facing big challenges to meet its CO2 target by 2012?" he said.
No one was surprised by announcements that Ford was considering the future of Volvo and GM the future of Saab. Both reviews include the possibility of selling the companies.
Stefan Bratzel, head of the Center of Automotive institute in Bergisch Gladbach, Germany, said GM and Ford will not pump bailout cash into their Scandinavian brands.
"Any money they get from the US government will not be used in Europe," Bratzel said.
Both Saab and Volvo need to find a partner.
Saab had global sales of 83,179 in the first 10 months of 2008 and is too small to survive on its own.
Volvo sales are down 15.6 percent, but the company is still three times bigger than Saab with 320,9300 new cars sold between January and October.
It also has a wider product range than Saab with 10 models compared with Saab's lineup of two cars that need renewal. The Saab 9-5 medium-premium car was launched in 1997. The current-generation 9-3 lower-premium car arrived in 2002.
Saab has also consistently lost money under GM ownership. According to the Dagens Industri newspaper, Saab lost 2.2 billion kronor (€360 million) in 2007, compared with a 2.9 billion krona loss in 2006.
Volvo made a loss in 2007, but broke even in the fourth quarter of 2007.
Holmqvist thinks Volvo needs some short-term support from the Swedish government to help it survive until a buyer can be found.
Although larger than Saab, Volvo would still find it tough to survive on its own.
Possible new owners
At less than half the size of BMW or Volkswagen group's Audi premium unit, Volvo lacks scale, which pushes up procurement costs and makes it harder to spread the r&d outlay across different models.
Ford bought Volvo for 50 billion kronor ($6.45 billion) in 1999 following a bidding war with VW and Fiat. But a new attempt by VW to buy Volvo could be halted by EU anti-competition laws.
Fiat may not want to take on the added risk.
Japanese automakers rarely buy their overseas counterparts, preferring to develop their own brands.
Renault has been mentioned as a potential bidder for Volvo because it lacks a premium brand and Ford has been trying to push Volvo further upmarket.
Frank Schwope, auto analyst at Nord/LB bank in Germany, believes Volvo has a strong future, in part because its brand image is synonymous with safety.
"The future for Volvo is as the daughter of another European automaker," Schwope said. "Either brand could be attractive to a Chinese automaker looking to acquire a recognized brand name as well as European technology."
The position of Saab is more precarious than that of Volvo. It also has less time to find a savior because its parent GM is in a worse financial position than Ford.
Holmqvist thinks the solution for Saab lies with what happens to fellow GM subsidiary Opel, which has asked for help from the German government.
Said Holmqvist: "I don't think Saab is sellable as it is, because there is only really production in Sweden, and they are in serious trouble."