Why Are European Auto Stocks so Cheap?

Despite a spike in sales, shares of car makers are looking incredibly cheap. The reason lies in an uncertain outlook well beyond their sector

Robert van den Oever 7 August, 2023 | 12:48AM
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BMW car's grille

European car sales were up 18% in the first half of the year, but you wouldn't guess it when looking at how cheaply the region's carmakers are valued: most automotive majors are trading at less than half of analysts' fair value estimates. The first takeaway would be that the time is ripe to buy quality stocks at bargain-basement prices - but the situation is a bit more complicated.

What's holding back sentiment on these stocks is the outlook for consumer demand in the coming quarters. Contrary to the latest sales stats, new orders for cars are pointing to a decline. Consumers are hesitant because of high inflation and the real risk of an economic recession in the second half of 2023.

Morningstar’s automotive analyst Richard Hilgert has been covering this industry for two decades. He attributes recent strong sales to the delayed delivery of orders that could not be fulfilled amid shortages in chips and other components that crimped car production during the pandemic. As these disruptive effects eased, orders placed in a more positive economic climate could finally be filled. As a result, the European Automobile Manufacturers’ Association (ACEA) was able to log growth in new registrations ranging from 11.3% in January to an impressive 28.8% in March.

That resulted in a 17.9% year-on-year rise in the first half of the year. Most of Europe’s largest markets grew significantly, with Spanish new registrations up 24%, Italy up 22.8%, France up 15.3%, and Germany up 12.8%.

Now that car manufacturers have filled much of the backlog, new demand must replenish order books, but it hasn't so far. The German industry group VDA (Verband der Automobilindustrie) observed a decline of 27% in new orders during the first half of the year among its German members. International orders for German manufacturers were down just 5% for the period, but with a downward trend, culminating in a 12% slump for the month of June.

High inflation is making European consumers hesitant to make large expenditures such as a new car. Car prices have accelerated at an even faster clip than general consumer prices, with the average price tag of new cars sold in the Netherlands now well over 40,000 euros. On top of that, rising interest rates make financing or leasing a car much more expensive.

Medium-term rebound

Hilgert predicts that this slowdown will largely offset the strong first half of the year, resulting in much more muted sales growth of between 1% and 5% for the whole year. He expects the demand to rise again once recession fears have peaked and the economic slowdown has bottomed. From 2024 onwards into 2025 he sees demand rising again and registrations growing from 12.8 million cars in 2023 to 15.8 million in 2027.

Output will rise too. “Production levels at the car manufacturers are still relatively low at the moment. We are now in the 4th year of constrained production,” Hilgert says. Compared to 2019, the last full year before Covid, volumes in the first half of 2023 were 21% lower, according to ACEA data. That is mainly because the chip industry still can’t deliver everything the automotive industry needs, Hilgert points out. If the chip industry continues expanding its capacity and strengthens local supply chains, car production can ramp up.

When the industry reaches the point where production and deliveries are matching demand, revenues and profits will grow towards levels that are implied by Morningstar’s current Fair Value. Valuations in the automotive industry remain affected by the long-standing effects of the pandemic: in the first half of 2021 automotive stocks rallied, anticipating higher demand and production. As that didn’t materialise, a sell-off followed in the first quarter of 2022. The sentiment behind that sell-off lingers today for some original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) such as Volkswagen [VOW3], priced at 117 euros and its fair value at 338. BMW [BMW] is one of Hilgert’s top picks together with General Motors, and its share price is around 104 euros compared with a 157 euros Fair Value.

Are European car makers truly undervalued, then? From a Morningstar view, the demand dip that started in 2022 has caused significant discounts. Analyst Hilgert sees upside, for now: “The market predicts a stronger demand, but we have yet to see that happening. There is a clear path towards higher demand and if that materialises, stocks will go up again. If demand for cars peaks by 2025, and there is no stimulus to keep demand growing, then we will see the stocks in a sell-off again.”

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The information contained within is for educational and informational purposes ONLY. It is not intended nor should it be considered an invitation or inducement to buy or sell a security or securities noted within nor should it be viewed as a communication intended to persuade or incite you to buy or sell security or securities noted within. Any commentary provided is the opinion of the author and should not be considered a personalised recommendation. The information contained within should not be a person's sole basis for making an investment decision. Please contact your financial professional before making an investment decision.

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Securities Mentioned in Article

Security NamePriceChange (%)Morningstar
Rating
Bayerische Motoren Werke AG91.92 EUR-0.97
Dr. Ing. h.c. F. Porsche AG Bearer Shares75.62 EUR-1.43Rating
Ferrari NV384.60 EUR0.03Rating
Mercedes-Benz Group AG65.71 EUR-0.08Rating
Renault SA47.81 EUR-0.62Rating
Stellantis NV20.36 EUR-0.17Rating
Volkswagen AG Vorz-Inhaber-Akt ohne Stimmrecht118.00 EUR-0.34Rating

About Author

Robert van den Oever  is Research Editor of Morningstar Benelux

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