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Is Germany’s Volkswagen becoming ‘the new Tesla’ as it ramps up e-vehicle production?

When Volkswagen chief executive Herbert Diess joined Twitter in January, he used his first tweet to warn pioneering electric car maker Elon Musk that he was coming after him.

Is Germany's Volkswagen becoming 'the new Tesla' as it ramps up e-vehicle production?
ID.3 cars in the Zwickau, Saxony production plant in March. Photo: DPA

The bold proclamation raised some eyebrows, coming from a carmaker better known for its 2015 “dieselgate” emissions cheating scandal than its green credentials.

But all that has changed since the German group announced an offensive to dominate the electric car market globally by 2025, vowing to set up six battery factories in Europe by the end of the decade.

“Volkswagen is the new Tesla,” declared the Financial Times, referring to the now dominant Californian e-car group founded by billionaire maverick entrepreneur Musk in 2003.

“Our transformation will be fast, unprecedented and on a scale not seen in the automobile industry in a century,” Diess said at VW’s inaugural “Power Day” last Monday, where he fired off a flurry of announcements.

READ ALSO: Volkswagen to spend 60 billion to transition to electric cars

Industry watchers say it’s a credible bet. Bloomberg Intelligence auto analyst Tatsuo Yoshida said Volkswagen “has (the) potential to overtake Tesla’s number one position… in a few years”.

Karl Brauer, an analyst with CarExpert.com, said VW’s “combination of financial resources and manufacturing capacity make it a prime challenger for Tesla’s dominance” — even if catching up with its US rival is “not going to be easy”.

‘Saving face’

Diess, who has headed the 12-brand VW group since 2018, has never hidden his admiration for Musk, whose brash and unconventional ways have a habit of disrupting markets.

The two men have a friendly relationship and regularly exchange emails, according to an insider.

If the aim of Diess’s carefully choreographed “Power Day” was to capture some of the enthusiasm of a Battery Day Tesla held late last year, particularly in the United States, it appears to have worked.
Diess’s announcements saw US investors flock into Volkswagen shares, including many small traders using online platforms.

In just a week, the Wolfsburg-based car giant gained 15 percent on Frankfurt’s blue-chip stock exchange, giving the group a market capitalisation of more than 130 billion.

The rise puts Diess’s 200-billion-euro target within reach but he has a way to go before matching Tesla’s $619 billion valuation.

VW’s “forced transition” towards more environmentally friendly cars has now been “recognised by the market”, said Eric Kirstetter, an auto sector expert at the Roland Berger consulting firm.

VW ironically owes its change of course to the dieselgate scandal, which forced the group into “a face-saving dive into an all-in electro-mobility strategy”, said Germany-based industry analyst Matthias Schmidt.

The Volkswagen E-Golf in production in Saxony in March 2018. Photo: DPA

Industry watchers note especially its decision to focus on developing a single platform for all its brands which could well be the game changer for the German giant.

The platform was used for the first time on the ID.3 model which launched late last year. UBS analyst Patrick Hummel called it “the most significant bet on electric vehicles made by any legacy carmaker to date” as VW’s competitors are using mostly mixed platforms and a combination of technologies.

READ ALSO: Volkswagen to slash up to 5,000 jobs to fund electric vehicle drive

Not Apple but Samsung

VW’s move is aimed at achieving economies of scale for its 12 brands.

“Tesla is learning what is takes to move into high volume, whereas companies like Volkswagen already have volumes and it’s just a matter of switching volumes from one platform to another which they have done routinely in the past,” said Subodh Mhaisalkar, executive director of the Energy Research Institute at Singapore’s Nanyang Technological University.

But VW’s size also comes with its own disadvantages — consensus has to be found for each major decision not only with the powerful head of the workers’ committee but also with managements of the group’s various brands.

Beyond the core electric technology, Volkswagen is also playing catch up with Tesla on the just as important software.

Ben Kallo, an analyst at US investment bank Baird, believes Tesla will remain the market leader on electric cars because of its advances in battery cell production and autonomous driving.

“VW might not be the Apple but the Samsung of the electric vehicles world,”UBS said in a report.

On Twitter, Diess is still 49 million followers short of Musk.

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PROPERTY

EXPLAINED: Will Swedish housing prices plummet as interest rates rise?

The Swedish financial supervisory authority warned on Wednesday that rising interest rates could lead to house prices falling "quite sharply". How likely is it that this will happen?

EXPLAINED: Will Swedish housing prices plummet as interest rates rise?

What financial circumstances might make it difficult for borrowers to repay loans?

With an increase in the cost of living, including rising interest rates and rising electricity prices, there are plenty of circumstances that may make it difficult for borrowers – especially those holding large debts in relation to their income – to repay their mortgages.

Households with large debts are therefore more sensitive to an increase in interest rates, according to the Swedish financial supervisory authority, known in Swedish as Finansinspektionen (FI).

The agency published its annual Swedish Mortgage Market report on Wednesday.

“Large debts also mean a higher sensitivity if you were to suffer unemployment during an extensive recession,” said Henrik Braconier, the authority’s chief economist.

Other factors that could stretch borrowers’ finances include rising energy prices, higher food prices, and growing inflation.

“Apples, oranges, tomatoes have gone up by 30 percent,” said Américo Fernández, a household economist at SEB. “Wheat is coming from Ukraine and it’s getting harder and harder to get hold of.”

READ ALSO: 

Will homeowners become unable to repay their mortgage loans?

Not according to Fernández.

“One of the last things Swedish households will fail to make their payments on is their mortgage and their houses,” he said. “They would rather decrease their spending on vacations abroad, or restaurants.”

The FI report noted that most new mortgages include margins that allow for fluctuations in the borrower’s finances. This means that mortgage holders have a cushion that allows them to handle financial changes.

“Our stress test shows that they can handle increases in the interest rate and also loss of income,” said Magnus Karlsson, FI’s director of macroanalysis. “New mortgages have margins in them calculating discretionary income, and will be able to absorb increases in interest rates and loss of income.”

SEB foresees an interest rise of up to three percent over the next two years, Fernández said,an increase that can be absorbed by most households.

Both Fernández and Karlsson agreed that if homeowners have to cut back on spending, those cuts will not come from debt repayment, but from their disposable income – the money they might ordinarily spend on entertainment, eating out, or travelling.

So while household spending may have to change, financial stability is not at stake for most households.

What’s going on with the housing market?

Right now, a record number of mortgage-holders have loans that are worth more than 4.5 times their income. This year, more than 14 percent of new mortgagors took on such large loans, compared to 6.3 percent last year.

A “low interest rate, increase in housing prices, increase in disposable real income and a housing market that is not functioning well” are all factors in the large debts that homeowners have incurred today, Karlsson argued.

Fernández noted that there is an imbalance between the low supply of housing and the high demand for housing, which is in part responsible for the high housing prices we see today.

He said a decrease in price of a few percentage points would not be surprising: “We’re coming from two years of exaggerated prices.”

Will housing prices begin to decrease after two years of increasing prices?

Calculations for three different scenarios tested by FI show that housing prices will decrease, Karlsson said.

While the agency does not predict housing prices, its report shows that under three different scenarios – the first an increase in mortgage interest rate, the second an increase in energy prices, and the third a combination of the first two with a reversal to pre-pandemic housing preferences – prices will decrease.

The Local Sweden reported last year about increasing housing costs in Sweden, spurred on in part by a desire for bigger homes further away from urban areas during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Fernández called the two years of increasing housing costs “surprising.”

“10-12 percent two years in a row, that’s historical in these uncertain times,” he said, noting that prices were still increasing in figures for March this year.

What sorts of housing will see the largest price decrease?

The FI report also included various scenarios of how the price of different types of housing may fluctuate based on changes in the interest rate.

One scenario assumed a 1 percent increase in interest rates this year and a 0.5 percent increase next year, and predicted that while the price of apartments owned in a cooperative – called bostadsrätter – would fall only slightly, the price of detached houses would fall by 10 percent.

Another calculation that accounted for rising electricity prices and a decline in new housing purchases found that the price of bostadsrätter and detached houses risked falling by an average of 30 percent.

Is there a plan to let borrowers end their mortgage terms early?

“We believe it needs to be simpler and more inexpensive for households to repay their mortgages early,” FI Director General Erik Thedéen is quoted as saying in a press release published by the agency on Wednesday.

To that end, Thedéen said at a press conference that the agency had sent a request to the government to change the calculation model for how banks are compensated when mortgages are terminated early.

“When you terminate a loan agreement and the bank incurs costs, it must be reimbursed,” Thedéen said. “But at present the banks are overcompensated, that is what our calculations show. If the government follows our line and changes the model and follows our line, then the banks must simply adapt.”

When asked about the likelihood of this request being granted, FI recommended reaching out to the Ministry of Justice for comment.

What does this mean for foreigners in Sweden?

If you’re already a mortgage holder, then as Karlsson and Fernández assured, mortgage calculations include a cushion that allow for changes in your financial circumstances.

If homeownership is in your future, housing prices may begin to decrease in the near future, so it’s worth keeping an eye on your local real estate listings.

By Shandana Mufti

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