The jungle drums of the financial pages are beating yet again; this time, the rumour is that Great Wall Motors are set to buy Fiat-Chrysler – or at least, parts of it. There are rumours that GWM wants to buy all of the company, yet this is unlikely – GWM is not big enough, nor does it have enough capital, to make a realistic buyer. The truth of the matter is that GWM are keen on buying the Jeep brand – a purchase that would see them become the largest SUV manufacturer in the world, as well as gain a vast footprint in the American and European markets. The iconic American brand – which has not been under American ownership for many years – is one of the most profitable parts of the Italo-American company. It is on track to sell 2 million vehicles next year and possesses a fervent fanbase – some market analysts believe Jeep itself is more valuable than it’s parent company.
Yet selling off Jeep would consign Fiat, the company which Mr. Marchionne rescued in 2004 and which he merged with Chrysler in 2009, to becoming a second rate carmaker. Marchionne is currently attempting to find a future for the company before he retires from the company in 2019 – he has discussed previously mergers (with Hyundai) and raised hopes of FCA being acquired by larger automotive groups, but, having been rebuffed by both GM and Volkswagen, so far nothing has succeeded. Mr Marchionne is known to be a huge believer in consolidation in the automotive sector – that is why he will likely use these Jeep rumours to his advantage in seeking a new future for FCA, possibly under new ownership.
Marchionne has been remarkably open about the prospects of Jeep and Ram (another FCA American truck brand) being spun off. This is something the company has experience doing, as it spun off Ferrari from the larger parent to become the best-performing car manufacturer. There are also rumours that Alfa Romeo will be spun off with Maserati, and FCA’s parts companies, such as Magnetti Marelli, will likely be sold off too. This is the likeliest outcome, unless Marchionne can find an outright buyer. This would allow Marchionne to establish several smaller, more focussed companies (that would hopefully follow in Ferrari’s footsteps) and create a smaller core company focussed on mass-market vehicles. This is also the route that would see the highest returns for the owners, the Agnelli family. Selling off Jeep would leave a rump company, which would be highly capitalised but without the necessary infrastructure or market capitalisation to make it’s new financial wealth felt.
Yet the move to sell an American icon to a Chinese firm is also unlikely thanks to the presence of Donald Trump in the White House. Given Mr Trump’s business-orientated outlook and fierce defence of America in the face of what he views as Chinese trade cheating. The President likely bridles at the mere placement of ‘Jeep’, ‘Chinese’ and ‘buyers’ in the same sentence – any attempt by GWM to buy Jeep would be killed off almost immediately. The company may be in foreign hands, but those hands are not set to be Chinese any time soon.