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Daimler cuts 2018 profit forecast on trade tension

Move sparks fears of wave of earnings downgrades by original equipment manufacturers across car industry

Daimler says that import tariffs on cars exported from the United States to China would hurt sales of its Mercedes-Benz cars, resulting in slightly lower earnings before interest and taxes this year.


GERMAN luxury carmaker Daimler cut its 2018 profit forecast, blaming a trade war between China and the United States and stricter pollution targets, sparking fears of a wave of earnings downgrades across the industry.

The company said late on Wednesday that import tariffs on cars exported from the United States to China would hurt sales of its Mercedes-Benz cars, resulting in slightly lower earnings before interest and taxes (Ebit) this year. It previously saw its 2018 Ebit rising slightly.

"We do not believe Daimler will be the only OEM (original equipment manufacturer) to reduce guidance. Other OEMs are also exposed to similar trends that Daimler cites in various degrees," Morgan Stanley analysts said.

BMW's exports of sport-utility vehicles (SUVs) from the United States may suffer similarly to Daimler, and stricter vehicle certification tests will hit all European manufacturers in the second half of this year, they said.

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Daimler's revised forecast comes as US President Donald Trump is proposing to impose tariffs on imported vehicles on the grounds that trade imbalances on many products threaten US national security.

He is separately promising to impose tariffs on up to US$200 billion of Chinese goods. China has warned that it will retaliate with levies on US products, potentially including the Mercedes-Benz SUVs shipped to China from Alabama.

Separately on Wednesday, the chief executive of Volvo Cars warned that higher tariffs could undermine the Chinese-owned carmaker's plans to hire up to 4,000 workers at a new vehicle assembly plant in South Carolina.

Stocks in a wide range of companies have see-sawed in recent weeks as investors tried to assess the risk to corporate profits from the Trump administration's trade policy.

Daimler is one of the biggest global companies to cut its guidance, and blame trade tensions. The German firm's revised forecast came on the same day as reports that German carmakers backed a proposal that the European Union drop tariffs on vehicles to defuse trade tensions.

Beijing's proposed 25 per cent tax on US car factory exports will hit nearly 270,000 vehicles, with German carmakers accounting for US$7 billion of the US$11 billion total.

While the United States and China have not yet imposed new tariffs, Daimler said that it expected them, and that it would not be able to recover the costs from customers.

"Fewer-than-expected SUV sales and higher-than-expected costs, not completely passed on to the customers, must be assumed because of increased import tariffs for US vehicles into the Chinese market," it said in a regulatory filing.

BMW, the largest vehicle exporter from the United States in terms of value, has its largest factory in Spartanburg, South Carolina and faces a US$965 million impact from tariffs, with Daimler exposed to a US$765 million hit, analysts at Evercore ISI have said.

Around 18 per cent of all BMWs sold in China were exported from the United States last year, and the carmaker has warned a further escalation of the trade row "would be harmful for all stakeholders".

BMW this year quietly stopped exporting the X3 from the United States to China amid escalating trade tensions, moving production to a plant in Rosslyn, South Africa and another in Shenyang, China.

BMW had no immediate comment about the impact on profits, but a spokeswoman said on Wednesday: "Barrier-free access to markets is a key factor not only for our business model, but also for growth, welfare and employment throughout the global economy."

Daimler also said that a new vehicle certification process based on stricter fuel efficiency test procedures would hit sales in the second half of the year, and warned that earnings at Mercedes-Benz's vans unit would suffer because of a vehicle recall for diesel-engined models.

Several carmakers including Volkswagen have said that they face challenges adapting their vehicle fleets to meet the new Worldwide Harmonised Light Vehicle Test Procedure (WLTP), which is based on real driving data rather than theoretical scenarios.

Because the new regime gives higher carbon dioxide readings than the old system, it will force some carmakers to delay road certification and sales, or push vehicles into a higher tax bracket.

"The elephant in the room at the moment is the response of national governments - and manufacturers - to the new WLTP emissions and fuel economy testing procedure, which has the potential to cause significant tax increases in countries which have taxation regimes based on carbon dioxide emissions," analysts at LMC said this month.

Daimler now sees Ebit at Mercedes-Benz Cars slightly below a year earlier, compared with previous guidance for a slight rise.

It sees earnings at the vans division dropping significantly after German regulator KBA last month ordered the recall of Mercedes-Benz Vito vans fitted with 1.6 litre diesel engines, saying that they breached emissions rules.

Daimler, which has said that it will appeal KBA's decision, previously expected earnings at the vans business to decline only slightly.

Japanese and South Korean carmakers for the most part do not ship vehicles made in the United States to China. Most of the vehicles sold in China are made locally through their Chinese joint ventures, along with imports from Asia.

But analysts said that the US trade spat with China raised concerns about knock-on effects on other countries, such as potential US car tariffs on all vehicle imports.

"South Koreans have higher portions of vehicle imports in the US than peers, making them vulnerable to US potential tariffs," Kwon Soon Woo, an analyst at SK Securities, said. REUTERS

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