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An auto worker checks a vehicle moving along the assembly line at a Geely factory in Cixi, in China’s Zhejiang province. Rival Beijing Motor, or BAIC, is launching an IPO in Hong Kong. (CARLOS BARRIA/REUTERS)
An auto worker checks a vehicle moving along the assembly line at a Geely factory in Cixi, in China’s Zhejiang province. Rival Beijing Motor, or BAIC, is launching an IPO in Hong Kong. (CARLOS BARRIA/REUTERS)

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Beijing Motor IPO reveals two-speed auto market Add to ...

Beijing Motor is offering investors a glimpse under the hood of the Chinese auto industry. The car maker, part-owned by Germany’s Daimler, is planning a Hong Kong listing it hopes will help it cash in on China’s expanding demand for new vehicles. But its profitability depends entirely on joint ventures with foreign groups. It’s a reminder that China’s car market has two speeds.

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The company, officially known as BAIC Motor, made 8 per cent of the cars sold in China last year. But most of those are foreign brands manufactured in joint ventures with Daimler and Hyundai. The partnerships also prop up the Chinese group’s bottom line. Though it made an operating loss of 2.4 billion yuan ($413-million) last year, its share of the two joint ventures brought in more than twice that amount.

A restructuring completed last November will make BAIC Motor’s income statement look less lopsided. The Chinese company increased its share of the Daimler joint venture to 51 per cent, allowing it to consolidate the unit in its financial statements.

It’s easy to see why BAIC Motor and Daimler want to accelerate Mercedes production: more than half the German car maker’s sales in China are currently heavily-taxed imports. Besides, luxury cars have so far escaped Beijing’s crackdown on ostentatious spending. Sales of premium sedans and SUVs grew an average of 38 per cent annually from 2009 to 2013 according to All China Market Research, more than double the overall market rate.

However, this growth is not yet feeding through into earnings. Profit at the Beijing Benz joint venture last year was 1.5 billion yuan, less than half the 2011 figure. BAIC Motor’s biggest financial engine is its joint venture with Hyundai, which sold more than a million cars in the People’s Republic in 2013. The unit earned 10.8 billion yuan last year, up 58 per cent in two years.

As with other Chinese auto makers, the question is whether BAIC Motor can transplant the success of its joint ventures to its own brands, and whether the partnership structure is sustainable in the long term. In the meantime, the IPO serves as another reminder that when it comes to the Chinese car market, foreign brands are still in the fast lane.

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