Mexico’s auto industry is surging, but we still rule

Mexico has captured 9 of the 11 new assembly plant announcements in North America since 2010. Pictured is Volkswagen’s plant in Puebla.

Amazingly, Mexico has captured nine out of the last 11 announced new automotive assembly plants in North America since 2010. The South landed the other two. The Center for Automotive Research (CAR) estimates that light vehicle production in Mexico will top 5 million units by the end of the decade. As late as 2013, Mexico produced only 1.7 million units, and last year about 3.5 million vehicles were assembled there. But the new factories in Mexico that are not operating as of yet — including plants by BMW, Nissan/Daimler, Kia, Toyota, Ford and Audi — are expected to boost vehicle production dramatically in the next few years.

Last year, the U.S. (the Midwest and the South) produced about 12 million units. In Canada, where the automotive industry is declining, only a little more than 2 million cars were built in 2015.
According to CAR, the U.S. and the Southern Auto Corridor are not losing existing production to Mexico like some other countries. Major assembly plants announced in Mexico have come at the expense of plant closures in countries such as Germany and Japan. Yet, there is no question that the South has lost out on the economic growth of new assembly plants it would have captured had they not been built in Mexico.

The benefits of making cars in Mexico aren’t numerous. It costs about $1,200 a vehicle less overall to make an automobile in Mexico as opposed to the U.S., according to CAR. More importantly for automakers, Mexico has the export benefits of more than 40 different free trade agreements with other nations, more than double the free trade agreements the U.S. has with other countries. President Obama’s campaigns for FTAs with Europe and Asia are still pending. All the while, Mexico has tariff-free access to almost 50 percent of the global new vehicle market, by far the biggest attraction for automakers.

For automakers and suppliers, there are issues with operating in Mexico. The port system in the country is underdeveloped, and much of the steel produced in Mexico is not automotive grade, meaning about 90 percent of the steel the country uses for the production of automobiles each year is imported from the U.S.

Importing to and exporting from Mexico takes about twice as long as in the U.S., raising distribution costs roughly 40 percent higher. Also, the business costs of crime and corruption in Mexico are about 50 percent higher than in the U.S., but that has not reduced investments in the country from automakers. They simply add that cost into their budgets. Also, energy costs, specifically those tied to the cost of electricity loads at OEM and parts plants, is higher in Mexico.

There is no question that new OEM activity in Mexico the last five years has been much stronger than here in the Southern Auto Corridor. However, OEM expansions are actually more numerous here in the South than in Mexico. Since the end of the recession all but two of the 17 major assembly plants in the Southern Automotive Corridor have expanded, four facilities more than twice.

The auto parts supply chain is also much stronger in the U.S. than in Mexico. CAR estimates that vehicles produced in Mexico “may be comprised of up to 40 percent U.S. content.” Furthermore, according to Michigan-based CAR, parts makers invested $3.4 billion in the last 10 years in Mexico compared to over $44 billion invested in the U.S. during the same timeframe. In Canada, parts manufacturers invested just $580 million since 2006.

In total, from the end of the recession through 2015, the auto industry as a whole – including OEMs – invested $80.7 billion in U.S. operations compared to $25.8 billion in Mexico.

Automotive leads record-setting year for manufacturing in the South

Today, factories in the U.S. make twice as much product as they did in 1984. And they are doing it with one-third of the manufacturing workforce. In fact, the output of durable goods in 2015 was the highest in the nation’s history. So, we do have a strong manufacturing base, at least in the South, much of the Midwest and parts of the West, and it is getting stronger because on a cost-basis, we can compete with any major manufacturing nation in the world.

As for the manufacturing sector, 2015 was the year of the automotive industry. Ten of the 17 major automotive assembly plants in the Southern Automotive Corridor are currently expanding and that OEM activity has forced the supply chain to those plants to grow as well. Automotive has led all sectors in the number of large projects in the South 21 of the last 22 years. The only time automotive didn’t lead all sectors was a year in the late 1990s when call centers posted a ridiculous total of deals.

In a record-setting year, the automotive industry in the South announced 111 big projects of the manufacturing sector’s 424 deals in 2015. That’s more than one-quarter of all manufacturing projects meeting or exceeding 200 jobs and/or $30 million in investment coming from the auto sector. There is no question what the most important industry in the South is. It is the automotive industry, hands down.

As written, automotive was the No. 1 industry — service or manufacturing — by a large margin in 2015. The 111 projects meeting or exceeding our thresholds was also a 22-year record. At no point since 1994 has any industry topped 100 projects meeting or exceeding our thresholds. And why not, U.S. car sales in 2015 set a record, beating the record reached 15 years ago. Automakers sold 17.5 million cars and light trucks in 2015 and overall Americans spent about $570 billion on the new vehicles. Automotive sales are a prime indicator of how the economy is performing. Cheap gas and low interest rates were also factors in the car sales record.

Also in 2015, the Southern Automotive Corridor gained two plants, both in the Charleston, S.C. region. Volvo and Daimler Vans are the first two major automotive plants to announce new plants in the South since Volkswagen’s announcement in 2008 that it would build an assembly plant in Chattanooga, Tenn. And with more than half of the plants in expansion modes, with automakers spending billions on more space and equipment, the automotive industry in the Southern Auto Corridor has never been more active.

And it is not just manufacturing that the South is getting with the automotive industry. Mercedes-Benz is relocating its North American headquarters from New Jersey to the Atlanta metro. Toyota will be moving upwards of 4,000 people from mostly California as it relocates its North American headquarters to Plano in the Dallas-Fort Worth metro. Of course, Nissan relocated its headquarters to the Nashville metro several years ago. Those projects are huge for the Southern Auto Corridor in that they bring value-added automotive jobs in addition to the manufacturing base.

We’ve got China “right where we want ’em”

For those who still languish over “losing to China” or believe that the economy is still in recession, wake up and smell the data. Economic development in the South was about as good as it gets in calendar year 2015 according to the data (see page 36). And as for China, borrowing a quote from the late football coach Bear Bryant that he made in the half-time locker room down 15-0 to Georgia Tech in 1960, “We got ’em right where we want ’em.” For those of you who don’t know the rich history of Alabama Crimson Tide football, Bama scored all of its 16 points in the fourth quarter, kicking a field goal on the last play of the game to beat Tech 16-15.

We do have China “right where we want ’em.” Parts of this country, specifically the South, have become so cost competitive for industry that we are actually beating China at its own game, which it successfully implemented by capturing U.S.-based manufacturers by the thousands from the mid-’90s to 2010.

According to the Reshoring Initiative, last year, 60,000 U.S. manufacturing jobs are estimated to have left the U.S. for China while 67,000 returned, or reshored. We are winning with China now and there is not much that country can do about it. The tables have turned on China when it comes to making things for North American consumption. They must now play by our rules. We — our U.S.-based corporations — no longer have to play by theirs.

In fact, most corporate officials, including spokespersons for Chinese companies, freely admit it costs less to manufacture most goods in the American South for U.S. consumption than in nearly all parts of China. And if it is becoming nearly impossible to make a profit from making goods in China for North American consumption, where does that leave Chinese companies? It puts them in a forced position to build factories here if they want to sell products to the largest economy in the world. That data can’t be overlooked.

For example, the cumulative value of Chinese investments in the U.S. in 2005, including real estate, acquisitions and greenfield projects, added up to just $2.5 billion. That isn’t even the cost of one decent size petrochemical plant in Louisiana or Texas. In 2006, the Chinese invested just $200 million in this country.

Fast forward to 2010, when the U.S. and the South became incredibly competitive for a variety of reasons (most of which centered on the low cost of energy from the fracking frenzy), China invested about $5 billion in the country. In 2012 and 2013, it was $14 billion each year, and some are predicting China will join the U.K., the Netherlands, Japan and Germany at the top of the foreign direct investment list in the U.S. this year. If so, it would mean China could invest as much as $30 billion in the U.S. this year.

So, for those who think we are “losing to China,” check the data you are using, because it is outdated. Not only has the bleeding of manufacturing jobs offshored to China slowed to a trickle, the very thing that is enticing companies to reshore is also forcing Chinese companies to build plants here in the South.