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HK bears go short on Chinese auto-makers

They are betting on a persistent fall in China car sales because of a slowing economy, trimmed government subsidies and competition from foreign brands

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Above: The Wey brand's electric sports utility vehicle (SUV) built by Great Wall Motor Co on show at the China (Guangzhou) International Automobile Exhibition in Guangzhou.

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Above: BYD's hybrid electric SUV model Yuan.

Taipei

SEVERAL Chinese automakers are among the worst performers in Hong Kong's equity markets this year, and their slump may be far from over.

Bets to go short BYD Co soared to the highest in at least 12 years this month, according to IHS Markit Ltd data, turning the Warren Buffett-backed Chinese manufacturer into the second-most shorted stock in the city.

Bearish wagers on Brilliance China Automotive Holdings Ltd are near the highest in more than six years; since May, investors have also boosted short interest in Great Wall Motor Co as a percentage of shares outstanding to a one-year high after their bets surged more than a year ago, Markit data shows.

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Bears are betting on a persistent drop in auto sales on the mainland due to a slowing economy, falling government subsidies and rising competition from foreign peers as China vowed to open up its auto market.

The latest catalyst was the nation's cut in the import duty on passenger cars effective July 1, which put pressure on the pricing of domestic models, said Guotai Junan Securities Co.

Exacerbating auto-makers' woes are concerns over the sustainability of joint ventures, as the government will allow foreign makers to take full ownership of the ventures.

Toliver Ma, a Guotai Junan analyst based in Hong Kong, said: "Uncertainties over Chinese auto-makers are greater than anytime in the past, which is why short sellers are attracted.

"The whole sector's margins and profits are falling, and people are worried about their sales in the second half."

China's car sales slumped for a second consecutive month in July as customers shied away from visiting showrooms amid the US-China trade spat and an economic slowdown.

According to Goldman Sachs Group Inc, Chinese auto-makers are rushing to cut prices; the price erosion level is close to 2015, when there was a severe pricing war.

Vincent Hsu, fund manager at Fuh Hwa Securities Investment Trust Co, who fully unwound his stake in the sector at the end of last year, said: "China's rapid auto sales growth in the past years was driven by SUVs, but sales of such models fell for the first time in June and kept falling in July. That is a wake-up call."

BYD, Brilliance China Automotive and Great Wall Motor did not reply to Bloomberg e-mails and calls seeking comments.

Chinese auto-makers are due to report first-half earnings this month, with investors keeping a close eye on the companies' third-quarter guidance in their statements.

Angus Chan, Shanghai-based analyst at Bocom International Holdings Co, said: "The outlook for the auto sector in the second half is bearish, so some investors chose companies with worrying sales prospects to short."

Brilliance China Automotive would get less profit contribution from its venture with BMW AG, as the latter is poised to become the first foreign car company to take majority control of its Chinese venture, Mr Chan said.

BYD, which heavily relies on government subsidies, may face a profit slowdown as China is said to weigh further cuts in electric-vehicle subsidies, while Great Wall Motor, a major SUV maker, is battling with falling sales, he said.

Analysts' views on the sector are sharply divided. Among the world's major automakers, BYD, Brilliance China Automotive and Great Wall Motor have the widest price target gaps between the most bullish and bearish analysts, following Tesla Inc, according to data compiled by Bloomberg.

Some analysts are still optimistic amid hopes that China may take measures to support domestic demand. Chris Hsu, portfolio manager at Allianz Global Investors Taiwan Ltd, who holds Brilliance China Automotive among his top 10 holdings, said: "China's latest retail sales growth slowdown was partly caused by slowing auto sales, so I think there could be a government plan to boost consumption.

"If there is no such plan, auto-makers should under-perform this year."

Brilliance China Automotive and Great Wall Motor have lost more than 40 per cent of their market value in US dollar terms this year, with both stocks among the worst performers on the MSCI China Index, while BYD's market value has dropped 35 per cent.

Brilliance China had fallen 0.6 per cent and Great Wall, by 0.2 per cent on Monday morning, while BYD had climbed 3.1 per cent. BYD is valued at about 21 times projected 12-month forward earnings, compared with 51/2 times for Brilliance China Automotive, 4.6 times for Great Wall Motor and 101/2 times for Hong Kong's benchmark Hang Seng Index.

Guotai Junan's Mr Ma said: "The valuations are very low, but the future is very uncertain. I don't expect the sentiment over the sector to turn around in the near-term." BLOOMBERG