For Iran’s economy, the price of a car matters more than the price of oil

Bourse and Bazaar | Khosro Kalbasi: The combination of reimposed sanctions, a slowing economy, and a devalued currency have put Iran’s automotive sector under severe pressure With nearly 1 million jobs linked to the automotive industry, the price of a new car could be even more important than the price of oil for the Iranian economy.

In an interview with Bourse & Bazaar, Saeed Madani, the former CEO of SAIPA, Iran’s second largest automaker, warned that price controls are squeezing state-owned automakers as sanctions effect the overall economy.

State-owned firms Iran Khodro and SAIPA, account for 90 percent of the 1.5 million vehicles manufactured in Iran each year, but are in many respects these firms are least prepared for the bumpy road ahead.

Madani, who led the SAIPA for three years during the height of sanctions from 2012 to 2015, warned that dependence on imported raw materials and parts leaves Iranian automakers vulnerable as the economy slides into a recession.

“With the rial weakening, carmakers’ purchasing power has been slashed. The input costs of auto parts industry have also increased significantly,” Madani explained. The rial has lost 70 percent of its value against the US dollar since the current Iranian fiscal began in March, making manufacturing inputs significantly more expensive.

Automakers Face Pricing Squeeze

These costs cannot always be passed onto the consumer. Presently, Iran’s Competition Council retains the power to set prices for many domestic products, including cars that are categorized as affordable, meaning their sticker price is less than IRR 450 million.

Madani believes that even if the state is reluctant to deregulate the auto market at large, authorities must give a green light to the carmakers to increase prices. “The upgraded prices need to be set for each model depending on the share of imported auto parts in its production,” he said.

The price increases are especially crucial for models assembled from imported completely knocked-down (CKD) kits, as these vehicles have a higher foreign parts content than those designed locally. Madani thinks prices for the vehicles assembled from CKD kits should be “at least doubled.”

SAIPA’s most popular model is the entry-level Pride, based on a design from Korean automaker Kia. The Pride is the cheapest car made in Iran. To manufacture each Pride, “it is necessary to import USD 1,500 worth of parts and raw materials,” Madani explained.

But while earlier this year, automakers were receiving foreign exchange at the subsidized rate of IRR 30,000 per dollar, today their currency is purchased through the NIMA system, established by the Central Bank of Iran to coordinate foreign exchange purchases and to track forex transactions involving banks, exchange houses, importers and exporters in real time. Over the last month, the average NIMA rate was IRR 92,304 per dollar.

In Madani’s estimation, looking just to cost of inputs, and ignoring increased overheads facing SAIPA, the price of the Pride needs to be raised by IRR 90 million (USD 600) to bring its sticker price to IRR 320 million (USD 2200).

The official price of the Pride was last raised in June, bringing it to IRR 227 million rials (USD 1,500). Today, the Pride is regularly selling for IRR 340 million rials (USD 2,300) in secondary markets, demonstrating the heavy subsidization enforced by the government.

Failing to readjust prices could have dramatic consequences for the auto industry, warned Madani. “If the government does not let carmakers increase prices, they will go bankrupt. Firms will be forced to shut down many production lines and output rates will nosedive,” he said.

Faced with this dilemma, the government will be tempted to throw the automakers a lifeline by providing financial aid and loans. But Madani considers such aid to be a burden for manufacturers, which will struggle to pay back debts in the future.

Uncertain Government Response

In recent weeks, government figures have repeatedly signaled that they are considering giving carmakers the green light to increase car prices. Financial newspaper Donya-e Eqtesad recently reported that industry stakeholders and officials are well aware that the car prices need to be increased, but are afraid of the political cost of such a decision as it will be seen as placing pressure on Iranian consumers.

On October 31, Iran’s newly appointed industry minister, Reza Rahmani, told IRNA, “Automakers are not permitted to change car prices [on their own]. There is a designated legal mechanism for introducing new car prices. No decision has been made yet about changing car prices.”

In the interview, Rahmani also questioned the credibility of the unaudited financial statements reported by the local media, which suggested that Iran Khodro and SAIPA had made losses amounting to IRR 21 trillion (USD 142 million) and IRR 29 trillion (USD 196 million) respectively in just the last six months.

“Iranian automakers are not loss-making. By producing certain models local carmakers may incur losses. However, this is not an issue which cannot be resolved by better management of resources,” the minister countered.

Rahmani revealed that a “specialized task force” had been established in coordination with industry executives “to study the problems which have hindered auto production over the past few months.”

But time is short. “With every day passing carmakers’ loses will further pile up… Automakers should not be forced to foot the bill for subsidizing car prices in Iran,” Madani said.

His assessment is shared by Maziar Beiglou, a board member of the Iran Auto Parts Makers Association. Beiglou recently stated in an interview that the “The situation has been worsening by the day,” pointing to the rising price of inputs such as iron ingots used by companies that produce automotive steel. In Beiglu’s assessment, more than 300 auto parts makers have been forced to stop production.

Total vehicle production in Iran is down 15.1 percent looking to the first half of the current Iranian fiscal year, which began in March. Already, economic headwinds and slowing production have led to mass layoffs.

Sate-owned companies such as Iran Khodro and SAIPA are unlikely to “resort to laying off workers” given the difficult optics for the Iranian government, Madani predicted. But private sector auto parts companies have already been forced to layoff “100,000 to 150,000” workers because of the deteriorating situation.