Page last updated at 12:37 GMT, Thursday, 18 December 2008

The Jaguar Land Rover dilemma

By Jorn Madslien
Business reporter, BBC News

Jaguar XF
Jaguar Land Rover's Indian owner Tata bought the marques in March

Jaguar Land Rover is in trouble. Nothing new there. Ford sold the two British carmakers for reasons beyond its own dire finances.

But what is causing jaws to drop is how readily the Indian industrial giant Tata is going cap-in-hand to the UK government asking for financial assistance, less than nine months after acquiring the brands.

In March this year, Tata's takeover was in itself seen as a bailout.

At the time, union leader Tony Woodley of Unite praised Tata's "commitments... to the future of Jaguar Land Rover", while Labour MP Richard Burden hailed it as a "forward-looking global company".

Now, it seems, their high hopes have been dashed.

And dashed with flair.

The furore in the UK coincides with a perhaps not-so-cash-strapped Tata confirming it will sponsor Ferrari Formula One at a time when savage cost-cutting is wiping out the Italian's racing rivals.

Hopes dashed

Business Secretary Lord Mandelson
[Jaguar Land Rover has] owners who are well-resourced, who have the first responsibility for sustaining the companies that they own in existence and in production for the future
Business Secretary Lord Mandelson

When Tata paid $2.3bn - at the time £1.15bn - for Jaguar and Land Rover, it was well aware that massive and sustained cash injections would be essential to preserve, or even rebuild, their upmarket reputations.

Ford had long been keen to get rid of their loss-making operations that were selling dwindling numbers of vehicles and that were set to require significant investment going forward.

Nine months later, industry analysts say Ford was lucky to get out in time - even though the two marques were sold for less than half what Ford had paid for them, not to mention all the investments the US parent made over the years.

That is not to say the current Jaguar Land Rover line-up of models is inferior. On the contrary; Jaguar's latest XF model has been widely hailed by the motoring press and Land Rover is receiving praise for its efforts to lower emissions from its 4x4s.

But none of this has been enough to bring sales and earnings back to sustainable levels, and these days the two marques are suffering as cash-strapped drivers are steering clear of large and thirsty cars - to the extent they are buying cars at all.

Well-resourced owners

Business Secretary Lord Mandelson is keen to remind Tata that for now the ball is firmly in its court.

He points out that Jaguar Land Rover has "owners who are well-resourced, who have the first responsibility for sustaining the companies that they own in existence and in production for the future".

Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg
[Direct assistance would be] setting the precedent, in terms of Government policy, that says 'this company deserves some money; that one doesn't'
Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg

As such, Jaguar Land Rover finds itself in a situation markedly different from that of also-troubled Vauxhall.

Vauxhall's overall parent, the US automotive group General Motors (GM), is broke and close to going bust, having lost $72bn since 2005.

GM's chief executive Rick Wagoner recently joined fellow chiefs from Ford and Chrysler to Washington to plead for a $34bn government bail-out.

In contrast, Jaguar Land Rover's overall parent Tata Group is an industrial behemoth with revenues of $62.5bn and $5.4bn profits in the year to March.

Tata Motors, India's largest automobile company and Jaguar Land Rover's direct owner, is just one of 115 subsidiary companies listed on Tata Group's website.

Special case?

Jaguar Land Rover may be small fry for Tata Group.

Jaguar production
Talks to save Jaguar Land Rover also relate to saving jobs

Yet, its call for assistance, reportedly to the tune of £1bn, from the UK government is significant.

Jaguar Land Rover employs some 15,000 people in the UK and claims to support a further 60,000 jobs through suppliers and dealerships.

By comparison, the three leading US carmakers - GM, Ford and Chrysler - are asking for $34bn - or£22bn - to prevent corporate failures that according to the Center for Automotive Research could lead to three million jobs and $300bn worth of business being lost.

So at its most basic, it is a question of bang for the buck; of whether it makes economic sense for Lord Mandelson to treat Jaguar Land Rover as a special case as he - in line with other European governments - considers how to safeguard the entire car industry's future.

Industry issue

Jaguar Land Rover is neither the only British nor the only European carmaker struggling. In the UK, some 850,000 people work in the manufacturing and supply sides of the automotive industry, according to Global Insight auto analyst Paul Newton.

"The unprecedented, coordinated and systemic collapse of the world's vehicle markets in November has sent shockwaves through the industry and sent carmakers, unions and trade bodies clamouring to their various governments for help," he observes in a research note.

A quarter of these jobs may now be on the line and may be lost by the middle of January, predicts the GMB union. The economic implications would be widely felt given that the industry clocks up sales of £50bn a year, according to industry trade body SMMT.

Lord Mandelson knows full well that the situation is serious, following a meeting with industry leaders on 27 November where they called for assistance.

Picking winners

Such assistance in one form or another may well be forthcoming, though direct aid for Jaguar Land Rover is another matter.

At last month's CBI conference, Lord Mandelson was keen to emphasise that the government's job is not to pick winners, the idea being that by supporting selected struggling companies through difficult times they may end up winners - ahead of healthy firms that receive no support - in the future.

Already opposition politicians have piped up to pre-empt the government from straying.

"I do not want to belittle, in any way, the real problems for a company like Jaguar Land Rover," Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg, before pointing out that any direct assistance would be "setting the precedent, in terms of government policy, that says 'this company deserves some money; that one doesn't'.

"That is quite a difficult slippery slope to navigate."

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