VDA President Müller: “The times are going to be tough” – Economy

More than 1400 exhibitors from 42 countries: The commercial vehicle IAA in Hanover, which has just ended, was a show of a new, better mobility with all the trucks, cargo bikes and buses, many of them electrically powered. But will that soon become reality? Hildegard Müller, President of the Association of automotive industry (VDA), has at least doubts in view of the political situation in Europe.

SZ: Ms. Müller, trucks and buses are an important economic early warning indicator: If the fleets are renewed, then a country will flourish and vice versa. Where is the indicator?

Hildegard Müller: Backlogged orders are still being processed, which had to wait primarily because of the shortage of semiconductors and raw materials. But new orders are declining noticeably, as many manufacturers have told me. One notices in this sector that economic expectations are deteriorating every week – and that consumers are reluctant to make new purchases.

How bad is the situation?

It’s not just about restrained sales. Above all, the suppliers are suffering from the galloping cost increases, especially in the case of energy. Ten percent of our member companies already have liquidity problems, another third expect significant liquidity problems in the coming months. Half of our members have therefore already canceled or postponed planned investments – and more than a fifth are now relocating abroad.

A paradoxical situation: The vehicle manufacturers, whether in the car or truck sector, are posting decent profits, but the suppliers are complaining more and more loudly. Is there a rupture between the upper and the lower?

People treat each other fairly in the industry. At the same time, the relationship between manufacturers and suppliers, no matter how good it is, cannot compensate for the shift in axis that is taking place due to the cost increases: Germany’s competitiveness as a business location is deteriorating at a dramatic rate. The truth is that the manufacturers earn a significant amount of their money in foreign markets – outside Europe – but use their profits very heavily for the transformation and thus invest record sums.

Politicians want to take countermeasures, for example with the instrument of “negative profits”, which lowers the tax burden.

I’m not sure if that’s what the industry needs right now. In addition, there are still too many unanswered questions: When will the negative profit be determined? With the tax balance sheet, with the quarterly balance sheet? These are lagging instruments, and liquidity is being pulled out of companies whose situation is already tense. And we know from the Corona period that trailing instruments are not the best remedy: some companies waited more than a year. The following now applies: Above all, we have to start quickly with energy costs.

You have great expertise in the energy sector, what are your suggestions?

Above all, we have to get rid of taxes, duties and levies. Specifically, the electricity tax must be reduced immediately. In addition, we should connect everything that can produce electricity to the grid, the more supply, the lower the price. Decisions must now be made quickly and at the same time carefully considered: For example, the business associations were only consulted for six hours on the concept of the gas surcharge, and the criticism was not received constructively. Now the weaknesses of the surcharge are becoming apparent and it is apparently being discussed again. Incidentally, some companies have already suffered great damage because they lost tenders to foreign competitors with lower energy costs. And the basic rule is: act as one. We need less individual lectures, more joint action: Whether it’s the gas levy or the question of reducing the burden on small and medium-sized companies. One ministry that points to the other – Germany cannot afford that now.

We need more electricity, so also a longer operation of nuclear power plants?

Chancellor Scholz emphasized: “Whatever it takes.” All energy sources have to run. If obstacles are raised, then they have to be solved politically. In the long run, however, there will also be uncomfortable discussions. We take fracked gas from all parts of the world, but we ourselves reject the debate about fracking at home. So far we have been able to outsource things that were uncomfortable in Germany – that is no longer possible. The fact is: In the future we will have to help ourselves more. The following applies: We must de-ideologize the debates. Hard times are ahead of us.

Then you are certainly not blocking yourself from a general speed limit for six months. As a clear message: Everyone must recognize that we cannot blow energy out.

The savings are far behind what you would imagine, because not all 200 are driving. And changes in behavior as a reaction to the current situation are clearly noticeable. We also have proposals for digital traffic regulation on the table.

But didn’t you say: Whatever it takes?

I quoted Mr. Scholz (laughs). Seriously: People are more advanced than politicians, they themselves know how to save wisely. Should we now go through each area? Have I already turned the heating down to 2, do I only shower for a minute, do I only drive 100? Many people are experiencing a drastic consumption shock, there is no need for lectures: the lower middle class is slipping and the upper middle class has massive concerns: Will I still be able to afford something? The logisticians also tell us: People order considerably less online, parcel deliveries are falling massively.

What does the energy crisis mean for the decarbonisation of transport? In Brussels, negotiations on the ban on combustion engines are currently being finalized in the so-called trilogue format.

We do not yet see sufficient answers to important questions here: With a view to the 280 million cars that are driving on the roads of the EU, there is still no idea how they can make their contribution to climate-neutral transport. Despite a clear task, nothing has yet been submitted on synthetic fuels. Everything is currently banned. And then at some point the citizens also say: I don’t support that, that’s unrealistic!

And there is now much more than before the war the question of how quickly the infrastructure can be built. How much money can the public utility company put into the expansion of power grids? Away from the few flagship countries, the situation in the EU is dramatic: Hamburg has twice as many public charging stations as Greece. In the current situation, it is not foreseeable that Europe as a whole will be able to build the necessary infrastructure. So it’s not enough to say: We have 2035 as the end date, the market will take care of that. The minimum is that we evaluate it very soberly every year: Are we getting closer to the goal as planned? And then adjustments can be made early.

Your industry would of course like it if the combustion engines were allowed to run longer.

On the contrary! And one thing is very important: We should believe each other that we have an interest in climate protection. This industry – whether manufacturers, suppliers or also transporters and transport companies – wants to prove that transformation is also economically successful. On the IAA I just felt a lot of pride and saw impressive ideas. The investments speak for themselves: 220 billion in research and development by 2026, another 100 billion in the conversion of plants by 2030. Industry is ahead of politics. It is now crucial that politicians finally address the framework conditions – and not just keep setting new goals.

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