After two years of smooth sailing, Chrysler Corp. is finding itself in the midst of some choppy financial waters again.
The smallest of the Big Three auto makers, Chrysler saw its share of the U.S. passenger car market drop to 13.4 percent in 1977, the lowest level in more than a decade and down from 15.1 percent in 1976. Each percentage swing in market share roughly equals $600 million in annual auto sales.
Chrysler also returned to the red-ink column in the fourth quarter of 1977, after eight quarters of profitability, with a $49 million loss. Chairman John Riccardo said he expects the red ink to flow at least through the first quarter of this year.
The lack of profits, in turn, has created a liquidity problem. That means the already-debt-laden company will have to scramble for several hundreds million dollars in outside financing in the coming months to pay for an ambitious capital spending program dictated both by Chrysler's internal five-year plan to overhaul its product line and by government orders to improve the fuel efficiency and safety features of its vehicles.
The latest squeeze at Chrysler has caused some renewed hangwringing by outsiders about the corporation's long-term ability to survive (through the situation is considered nowhere near as perilous as at American Motors Corp., which now only has 2 percent of the U.S. auto market).
"It's a tenous situation" at Chrysler, said Richard L. Haydon, auto analyst with Goldman, Sachs' & Co. "The company is under a great deal of pressure and it is not going to ease in the next two years," he added, noting the softening automobile market, the company's continuing large financing needs and its inadequate cash flow.
But Chrysler repeatedly has confounded such expectations and demonstrated its resiliency in the face of past losses, labor strife, mismanagement and even the closing of the commercial paper market to the company in 1970 in the wake of the Penn Central bankruptcy which required a bank rescue orchestrated by the Federal Reserve Board.
Most recently, after being hit hard by the severe recessionary aftermath of the Arab oil embargo, which produced net losses of $52.1 million in 1974 and $259.5 million in 1975, Chrysler earned a record profit of $422.6 million in 1976.
Last year, however, Chrysler's earnings dipped to $163.2 million on worldwide sales of $16.7 billion.
Less than a third size of General Motors Corp. and less than half as big as Ford Motor Co., Chrysler is more leveraged financially and has traditionally traced a more volatile profit and loss pattern than its two major competitors.
Spreading its overhead over a smaller number of unit automobile sales, Chrysler has worked on a much thinner profit margin than either GM or Ford - so thin, in fact, that is easily vanishes when conditions in the auto industry weaken as they are doing now.
Chrysler earned only 1.3 cents before taxes for each dollar of sales it had last year compared with more than 6 cents for GM and about 4 cents for Ford.
Chrysler now is in the midst of a five-year program, initiated in the 1975 model year, to try to improve its share of the market and also its profitability. The cost of implementing that program is given one of the reasons for the company's current financial difficulties.
"We have a unique situation here unlike we've ever been involved in before," said scrappy Chrysler chairman Riccardo in an interview in his headquarters office. "The company is embarked on a very aggressive, major program to fix its major problems. It requires the complete implementation of this very aggressive product program, the completion of which will bring about many benefits."
Riccardo said he "would not characterize the future as iffy because that leaves the implication we can't make it - and that's not the situation we'in. I think we are very forthright in pointing out the problems we have short term, but that doesn't mean it's iffy."
The centerpiece of Chrysler's strategy is the Dodge Omni and Plymouth Horizon, two versions of a subcompact that Chrysler is assembling in Illinois and which it began marketing only in mid January. Equipped with a Volkswagen engine, the car is the first front-wheel-drive small car to be manufactured in the United States, puts Chrysler into the subcompact market for the first time, and is already being hailed as the most successful car Chrysler has ever introduced. Initial press and dealer reaction has been excellent, and Motor Trend magazine named them its "Car of the Year."
The roomy, four-door hatchback is sticker-priced at $3,706, and thus is extremely competitive with such popular imports as the Volkswagen Rabbit, the Hondo Accord and Ford's Fiesta. Chrysler is targeting first-year production at nearly 200,000.
Riccardo predicts the car will become "the standard small car built in the U.S. in the early 1980s," and gloats that Chrysler beat Gm and Ford to the punch on this one.
Maryann Keller, auto analyst with Kidder, Peabody & Co., has called the two autos "the first domestic cars built that are truly competitive with the imports," and said she is "convinced that these cars should add between 1.5 and 2 percentage points to Chrysler's market share."
Whatever advantage the Omni/Horizon provides to Chrysler will be needed to counteract the severe sales sag Chrysler's compact Volare and Aspen models are experiencing after providing Chrysler with nearly half of its total sales during the first ten months in 1977
Since the beginning of the model year last October, sales of the Volare and Aspen are down about 25 per cent, or 55,000 units, and in recent weeks the sales have been less than half of last year's comparable weekly totals. With inventories ballooning, Chrysler has put into effect a series of temporary plant closings.
Analysts attribute the sales drop primarily to keen competition from Ford's successful new Fairmont and Zephyr lines.
But Aspen and Volare also have been subject to three widely publicized recalls recently, and one consumer group has named the cars "Lemons of the Year." Motor Trend magazine, ironically, designated these models "Car of the Year" when they were introduced in 1976.
Chrysler officials heatedly deny the cars are lemons, claiming the defects requiring the recalls are part of the normal run of bad luck all manufacturers have experienced and do not represent any special problem with quality control. And they attributed the sales slumpy primarily to the bad winter weather in the Northeast where Chrysler says a disproportionate share of its dealerships are located.
No matter the reason, unless the Aspen and Volare regain some sales pep, even a blazingly successful introduction of the Omni/Horizon will only help Chrysler hold its current share of the market, rather than provide it with any substantial boost.
Chrysler's market share dipped to 11 percent in December, but has claimed back to nearly 13 percent in the first two months of 1978.
Chrysler's market share over the years has bobbed up and down. It reached its greatest penetration in 1933 when it took nearly 26 percent, and was near to thatin the early 1950s. But by 1961, this share dropped briefly as low as 8 per cent before the company clawed back to more respectable numbers.
One are in which Chrysler has been successful in the last years in building up a nearly 14 per cent share of the fast-growing market for light trucks. The company recently embarked on plans to invest $50 million to converts its Jefferson Avenue plant in Detroit, where it used to build full-size Chryslers, to a facility for panel trucks.
However, the company, as well as Ford, says that truck fuel economy standards proposed by the Department of Transportation that require a 30 percent improvement in fuel economy by the 1980 model year for trucks with a gross weight of 8,500 pounds are impossible to meet in that short period. And if the standards are finalized, Chrysler says it will scrap the conversion, which already has cost it $5 million, and simply will close the plant.
Because the Jefferson factory would provide jobs in Detroit's large black central city, Chrysler's position has drawn unexpected support from the NAACP, which said the standards proposed by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration would cause massive layoffs.
Final standards are due to be announced Wednesday, and some compromise is expected, though not one that Chyrsler necessarily will go along with.
Chrysler has been virulently out front in attacking the economi cost of government safety and fuel economy regulations instead of adopting the more cooperative stance of GM and Ford. Chrysler says it is not as rich as GM and Ford and finds it much harder to absorb the added costs mandated by government. But what is considered Chrysler's lack of cooperation raises the ire of officials in Washington.
Joan Claybrook, administrator of the NHTSA, which has set the truck mileage standards, says "Chrysler is certainly the most vocal opponent of many of these matters that are important to society." And she charged Chrysler's Riccardo "grossly exaggerates" the impact of government regulations on Chrylser's costs.
"I don't know whether it's the structure of their company, their leadership, or their financial condition" which gives Chrysler its reputation for resistance, Claybrook said.
Chrysler has warned that, in order to meet the proposed standards, it will have to lop off one-third of its current truck sales. But Claybrook, indicating she thought the company was bluffing, called this "an unbelievably-high-risk strategy and not one I think Chrysler would follow. But I wouldn't be surprised by anything Chrysler does. The decision on the Jefferson plant is Chrysler's not mine. Those are internal decisions. And they have a lot of flexibility on these decisions."
United Auto Worker union officials and auto industry analysts, however, take Chrysler's complaints more seriously.
UAW research director Howard Yound said his union was concerned that Chrysler would turn to foreign truck imports if it couldn't go ahead with manufacturing the vehicles at its Jefferson facility.
"It doesn't help the Jefferson plant if you have a mileage limitation and meet it with imported trucks," said Young. "What you're doing is replacing an oil deficit in our balance of trade with a truck deficit."
Ronald Glantz, who follows the auto companies for Mitchell, Hutchins Inc., a Wall Street research firm, says he has been skeptical of past claims by the auto companies that they can't meet the government's fuel economy standards but feels the timetable proposed by the government on trucks is just impossible to meet.
"And if Chrysler loses a third of its truck market, forget it," said Glantz. He noted that last year Chrysler built 480,000 trucks in the United States. A reduction of a third with an incremental profitability of $1,800 each, would cost Chrysler $2,40 a share in earnings, he estimated, substantially more than the $2.07 a share company earned in all of 1977.
In general, Wall Street analysts and UWA officials both give high marks to Chrysler's current management and its game plan. Riccardo, a former accountant who joined Chrysler 20 years ago, took over the company's helm in 1975 when former chairman Lynn Townsend suddenly stepped aside during the dept of the auto industry's slump. Eugene Cafiero, who has an engineering background, was elevated to the Chrysler presidency at the same time and functions as the company's chief operating officer.
Under Townsend, Glantz commented, "Chrysler didn't have a marketing strategy, it didn't have forward planning - in many respects it was a one-man show. When Townsen was replaced, the first reaction was Cafiero and Riccardo had never learned to make decisions. But I have been extremely impressed by their performance. The poor earnings last year and poor earnings this year are still a legacy of the problems from the oil embargo and problems left by the previous chairman. If you don't have money, you do the best you can. The Omni and Horizon are really the first ears of the new team, and they're a success."
Skepticism abounds, however, on whether Riccardo can come up with the financial wherewithal to see Chrysler through the next two years of his master plan, or whether reluctant lenders could derail the program.
With the capital expenditures of about $725 million in 1978, the same as last year, the company is expected to fall between $200 million and $300 million short of generating these funds from internal sources. Depreciation and amortization will produce $400 million. But Chyrsler profits for 1978 are expected to total $100 million by the most optimistic estimates, and some feel the company will be lucky to break even in 1978. So several hundred million dollars must come from outside sources.
At the end of 1977, Chrysler's long-term debt stood at $1.24 billion, up $200 million from the year before. Working capital at the same time stood at $1.06 billion, but this is increasingly tied up in unsold inventories of cars, with more than a hundred days' supply of most Chrysler models except the Omni and Horizon standing around.
In April 1977, Chrysler entered into a new credit agreement with 95 banks headed by Manufacturers Hanover Trust Co. of New York which provides the company with $560 million in bank credit. In the first few months in 1978, sources claim. Chrysler drew down about $150 million, mainly to finance inventories. While there is enough there to see Chrysler through 1978, and probably 1979, both Riccardo and the banks would feel easier if some longer-term financing could be arranged.
Riccardo said the "kind and amount" of external financings for 1978 "have not been completely decided." He ruled out a common stock offering. And he left open the possinility that the company might tap the European money markets, rather than New York where Chrysler has not had much appeal for investors.
The Chryslers chairman also said the company would pursue cost-cutting measures and might move to divest itself of some of its foreign operations if these could not be turned into money-makers.
Much of what will happen to Chrysler in the next few years will depend on the health of the U.S. economy and the strength of the auto industry. Riccardo says Chrysler has factored a normal cyclical downturn in auto sales into its five-year plan, but does not expect a slide as severe as occurred in 1974-75.
"This valley is not as deep as the ones they've been in before," commented veteran Detroit auto analyst Arvid Jouppi of John Muir & Co. "In fact, it's not a valley at all except where their earnings are concerned."
"Chrysler knows how to move around in the financial community, because they've had to do it of necessity more than Ford and GM," he added, predicting the company would be successful in finding the financing it needs.
"Chrysler is going to make it, there's no question about it," said Jouppi, looking at the long term. "There will always be an England, they say and I guess, there will always be a Chrysler."