January 30, 2013 5:59 pm

Fiat: Chrysler helps out

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Italian carmaker depends on its US affiliate for black ink in 2012 results

Fiat boss Sergio Marchionne says the carmaker is working “at the speed of light” to vanquish its European losses. Investors, without wishing to seem ungrateful, may beg to differ. On Wednesday, the group unveiled a pre-tax profit of €2bn for 2012 – much as expected – on sales 8 per cent higher in constant currencies at €84bn. But the black ink was solely thanks to 58.5 per cent-owned affiliate Chrysler, which had posted its own, creditable results for 2012 just hours earlier. Without the US carmaker’s help, Fiat would have made a €620m pre-tax deficit, with trading profits down about €700m year on year in 2012. At the after-tax level, its actual (Chrysler-aided) €1.4bn profit would have turned into a €1bn loss for Fiat alone.

Nor is this likely to change much in 2013. While Chrysler is guiding to a 10 per cent-plus sales increase this year and 30 per cent advance in net income, Fiat expects net profit for the group overall to be €1.2bn-€1.5bn – so flat at best. True, a moribund European car market is largely outside Fiat’s control. Italy’s political uncertainty, meanwhile, hardly facilitates domestic capacity cuts, although the company is achieving some flexibility through temporary lay-off schemes. Still, it hardly adds up to 670m miles per hour change.

In trying to steer through the next few years, meanwhile, Mr Marchionne’s hand is constrained by Fiat’s balance sheet: net industrial debt rose by more than €1bn in 2012 to €6.5bn. The new policy of driving Fiat’s brand portfolio upmarket will require cash – perhaps an extra €3bn over three years. But so will any buyout of the Chrysler minorities. Come 2016, which Mr Marchionne sees as the latest date for European profits, things may look brighter. In the meantime, Fiat shares, up 35 per cent over the past 2 months, already trade on 9 times 2013 earnings. That is on a par with BMW and higher than VW. Too far, too fast.

Email the Lex team in confidence at lex@ft.com

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