Inflation Is Great If You Have Pricing Power. Just Ask Mercedes.
(Bloomberg Opinion) -- For years, Mercedes-Benz Group AG’s profits failed to match the desirability of its luxury vehicles. Now, semiconductor shortages have given it the perfect cover to hike prices and prioritize production of its most expensive high-performance models.
The impact on earnings has been stunning. Mercedes reported a 15% operating profit margin during the final three months of 2021 — about double the car unit’s average return during the past decade. With inflationary pressures building across the supply chain, there could be no better demonstration of the benefits of the German giant’s pricing power.
Warren Buffett once described pricing power — the ability to raise prices without curtailing demand or losing share to a competitor — as the single most important decision in evaluating a business. Considering the frequency with which the subject is now debated on quarterly earnings calls, plenty of investors agree.
If companies are unable to fully pass on soaring raw material, energy and logistics costs to customers, their profit margins will suffer or they’ll have to find cost savings via more onerous productivity improvements.
With a value chain spanning component suppliers, tires, steel and semiconductors, as well as auto dealerships and rental firms, the automotive world reveals plenty about who has pricing power, who doesn’t, and why.
Due to a lack of inventory, much of the industry currently has an unusual ability to boost prices and thereby reinforce profitability: Dealerships are selling new vehicles above the manufacturer’s recommended sticker price, for example, while rental car firms can charge whatever they like to desperate holiday-makers. Even laggard Renault SA is making decent money again.
Some of this pricing power will fade once supply chains normalize and vehicle inventories are rebuilt. But just as luxury fashion houses have generally had no trouble raising prices lately, luxury car brands like Mercedes look best positioned, thanks to customers who are willing to spend. Even wait times of more than one year for some premium models haven’t deterred wealthy clients.
Similarly, premium tire manufacturers like French group Michelin have announced big price hikes for replacement tires without spurring a shift to budget brands, which also face raw material and shipping cost pressures.
Winning in an inflationary environment depends on how indispensable your product is and where you are in the value chain. Manufacturers of hot-ticket items are well placed, whereas it’s harder for suppliers to negotiate price hikes. If the latter pushes too hard, clients might shift business to a rival or bring the work in-house.
For example, Continental AG’s loss-making automotive technologies division was forced to shoulder higher costs last year related to automakers cutting production. Meanwhile, logistics, energy and the price of semiconductors for its advanced electronics have also gotten more expensive. Its management has made no secret of how it’s getting the raw end of the deal, saying in November there were “strong discussions” with automakers about recouping costs.
Suppliers are finding some ways to avoid being squeezed. German peer Schaeffler AG has a big after-market division that has had less difficulty hiking catalog prices for essential replacement car parts. Schaeffler has also highlighted how cost-escalation clauses in North American auto client contracts allow it to automatically pass on soaring steel prices.
These cost pass-through agreements are a vital lifeline for industrial companies. The trouble is there can be a time lag before they realize the full benefit, and they don’t always cover all the cost pressures businesses face.
At Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co., higher selling prices have more than offset commodity price increases. However, passing on transport, wage and energy inflation is more challenging, management said this month.
In the past, automakers have sabotaged themselves by producing too many vehicles, which encouraged steep discounting and undercut margins. Similarly, the rental-car industry failed to capitalize on its oligopolistic advantages due to perennial price wars.
Now, Ford Motor Co., Renault and Mercedes are among carmakers saying they won’t go back to the days of loading dealers with excess inventory once supply-chain issues ease. High values, not high volumes, are the new priority.
Given the industry’s track record, I don’t blame investors for fearing a return to bad habits, which explains why auto stock valuations remain pretty meager compared to current earnings. (Tesla Inc. is the exception.) If inflation persists, rising wages could become the next big burden auto companies must deal with, on top of the added costs of electrification. Pricing power is hard won and easily spurned.
More From This Writer and Others at Bloomberg Opinion:
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Chris Bryant is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering industrial companies. He previously worked for the Financial Times.
©2022 Bloomberg L.P.