Tata Motors was supposed to launch its Altroz premium hatchback brand in mid-August. But a flurry of critical happenings forced it to defer, considering that every car launch in India is a 4000-crore gamble. The decision might seem like Tata Motors’s prerogative, but what it also highlights is a hint at the current state of the passenger vehicle market of India. In more critical words, it is a tiny example of the causes and effects of the great Indian passenger vehicle slump of 2019.
The question then is: what is happening with the auto industry and why?
To answer that question in the simplest way possible, there arises a need to cover all the aspects of the event. Let’s have a quick look.
What is Happening with the Auto Industry?
Historical and current data by the Society of Indian Automobile Manufacturers (SIAM) show that in July 2019 sale of passenger vehicles across categories (two-wheelers and four-wheelers) dived by about 19% compared to the same period in 2018. This is a very steep fall.
The worst affected is the passenger vehicle segment which registered an annual drop of 31% compared to 2018 even as the industry saw government intervention through restrictions involving the Bharat state emission standards. Earlier in 2019, the BJP-led central government had mandated that only BS-VI-compliant vehicles will be allowed for sale in India from April 2020, hinting at a possible goodbye to the older BS-IV versions. This drop is the steepest since December 2000.
While experts have attributed the cause to multiple factors, what this slump has further resulted in is what is controversially described as ‘fear-mongering’ on the part of the industry players. Job cuts in lower-tier cities, deep discounts, and new model launches failing to attract the potential buyer, and sluggish stock market forms the circular loop of both causes and effects, which can only be simplified by taking a look at the possible cause of this slump. Or causes.
What Caused this Slump?
While the Goods and Services Tax (GST) introduced in 2017 helped improve overall passenger ownership numbers, it began to experience a sharp decline sometime in early 2018. What exactly caused it?
Increase in fuel prices (in major metropolitan cities like Mumbai), higher interest rates, and a major hike in vehicle insurance costs were the major factors, as reported by The Hindu. The flood situation in states like Kerala also had an adverse impact in the third quarter of the 2018-2019 fiscal.
It further reported the effects of the IF&LS crisis as it tied the slump in sales in rural areas to the decline in trust with non-banking finance companies (NBFCs). In rural India, NBFCs are trusted more than actual banks. This was further accentuated by the high inventory pile-up among dealers and manufacturers.
In December 2018, the industry set off the alarm, putting its final rays of hope on the Lok Sabha elections in early 2019. The old government regained its power and nothing changed.
What perhaps is the often-neglected cause but one which has the highest weight is the combination of the BS emission standards as well as the unanimous heralding of electric vehicles. Any wise person buying a car today wants to drive it for at least a few years. And what with fuel prices refusing to go down and government standing outside everyone’s door with the emissions placard, she wants to ensure that her future private commute is ensured as well as insured with low maintenance costs.
The new BS emissions mandate comes into effect on April 2020. So, naturally, the dilemma of buying a car before or after the due date has put off a lot of discerning buyers. More of them are holding off their purchases due to one reason or the other.
Lastly, what is interesting is also the rise in growth of pre-owned cars sales. Compared to the figures in 2018, the sales for used cars grew by 12% as reported by The New Indian Express on June 2019. If one looks at the features of cars launched in the last year and compares it with those that were launched five years ago, nothing much has changed.
With the young population making wise choices when it comes to finances, thanks to increased awareness of financial literacy in the nation, they no longer need a car, let alone a new car. Taxi-cab aggregators, despite their occasional newsworthy actions, are still going strong, thanks to the young India who does not yet believe in owning a car when all it does is take him from point A to point B. Which is what he wants.
What’s Going to Happen?
In August 2019, economist and former vice-chairman of the NITI Aayog thinktank Arvind Panagariya wrote a critical analysis of the auto industry slump. He criticized the industry for waiting on the government to bail them out as he also observed the decline as not cataclysmic.
What he suggested were the industry players to keep patience and use their former profits to club the gap in this ‘phase’ even as the nation moves on to a financial market that looks favorable to consumerism.
Although the slump has triggered losses in the form of large layoffs (about 10 lakh jobs at risk) by almost all companies, there is still hope that the performance will improve in the coming months. The industry has made a demand for a reduction in GST to 18% from the current rate of 28%, but there does not seem to be a clear resolution on that front even as the government ponders over it.
This could well be a phase for the industry, as noted by experts and some auto manufacturers alike, but when that ‘end’ will be cannot be guessed, especially during the high level of uncertainty in the Indian financial and consumers market.
Influential events like the recent revocation of Article 370 will take time to subdue, and only then can one even expect to see a change, as one analyst commented on the promise of anonymity. So, the best course of action is to just wait and watch.