Thursday, 4 December 2014

Is Proton seen headed in the right direction?

Proton has been trailling fellow national carmaker Perodua since 2006 in terms of sales

THE recent announcement by automotive conglomerate DRB-Hicom Bhd that it plans to raise RM2bil in funds, mostly to help turn around wholly-owned carmaker Proton Holdings Bhd, is seen as a move in the right direction by many.

One industry observer points out that Proton needs to develop new technology to help keep it competitive.

“For any automotive company to survive and be competitive, it needs to develop new technology on a continuous and consistent basis.

“Unfortunately, this has been a challenge for Proton.”

Proton’s lack of economies of scale is a major issue for the car company, he says.

“The pricing of its vehicles can be more competitive. However, this is not the case as the company can’t bring down the unit price of its vehicles as its development costs are spread across a smaller number of units, unlike many of its foreign competitors.”

Proton has been trailing fellow national carmaker Perusahaan Otomobil Kedua Sdn Bhd (Perodua) since 2006 in terms of sales.

While Proton has been struggling over the years sorting out issues such as its sales performance, quality issues and after sales woes, among others, Perodua meanwhile has been steadily thriving.

In 2005, Perodua, which was still behind Proton in terms of sales, launched its iconic Myvi compact car, a model that changed the automotive landscape and turned the tides in favour of Perodua.

The Perodua Myvi has been the best-selling car in Malaysia for eight consecutive years from 2006 and 2013. The model accounts for about 50% of Perodua’s annual sales.

According to data by the Malaysian Automotive Association, Proton sold a total of 138,753 vehicles in 2013 compared with 196,071 vehicles sold by Perodua in the same year.

Image result for proton new model irizRecently, Proton launched the highly anticipated Iriz, which, to many, is considered a game-changer for the company and is regarded as “the car” to protect its market share and directly take on the Myvi.

Image result for Proton SV CVT imagesAn automotive analyst points out that added funds are necessary for Proton to come up with not only new technology, but new competitive models as well.

“DRB-Hicom reportedly spent RM500mil to develop the Iriz and the car has been very well received by the public. Therefore, Proton needs more such models to boost sales and grow its marketshare, which is what justifies the need for added funds,” he says.

Earlier this month, DRB-Hicom announced that it was launching a perpetual sukuk programme to raise funds of up to RM2bil, which Malaysian Rating Corp Bhd (MARC) expects will be channelled to Proton.

The rating firm has assigned a preliminary rating of AIS to the group’s proposed perpetual Sukuk Musharakah programme of up to RM2bil. It also affirmed its AA-IS rating on DRB-Hicom’s existing Islamic medium term notes (IMTN) programme of up to RM1.8bil.

Both ratings carry a stable outlook. The two-notch rating differential between the perpetual sukuk and IMTN is in line with MARC’s notching principles on hybrid securities.

The proposed perpetual sukuk is non-callable within five years of issuance and has profit distributions that are cumulative and deferrable on an unlimited timeline.

MARC says the affirmed rating on the IMTN incorporated DRB-Hicom group’s strong market position in the domestic automotive industry, underpinned by a diverse range of car marques and a long operational track record.

It adds that the rating was also supported by a moderately diversified revenue stream from other businesses that included concessions, logistics and property development.

However, MARC has pointed out the ratings are constrained by the group’s large borrowings and its continued reliance on external funding to accommodate expansion and acquisition plans.

An analyst says the sukuk is unlikely to adversely impact DRB-Hicom’s credit profile.

“DRB-Hicom’s debts jumped in 2012 when it acquired Proton.

“Nevertheless, we believe that the sukuk is not designed to place pressure on their earnings.”

MARC, meanwhile, says that Proton’s short term liquidity concerns had eased somewhat following the completion of subsidiary Lotus Group International Ltd’s (Lotus) £207.30mil (RM1.1bil) debt restructuring into a longer tenured debt.

RHB Research Institute director and head of research Alexander Chia says Proton pays a high amount of finance cost per year to pay-off the borrowings it took to acquire Proton in 2012. “DRB-Hicom borrowed RM3bil to buy Proton and is currently paying over RM300mil in finance costs annually, which is a huge chunk of group profits. Proton’s marginal contribution to earnings is not helping matters.

“DRB-Hicom’s balance sheet is over-leveraged and Proton is also not contributing to help boost their earnings,” he says.

According to DRB-Hicom’s financial report for the financial year ended March 31, 2014, its finance cost stood at RM292.38mil.

Alternatively, another analyst says it is vital for Proton to collaborate with a globally-established original equipment manufacturer to enhance its competitiveness.

“A strategic partner can help fasttrack Proton’s presence in the global automotive arena. It also needs to be able to expand its export market.

He notes that tying up with a partner can also help Proton to reduce its costs.

It was reported recently that Proton and Honda Motor Co Ltd are currently engaged in a series of meetings to explore the possibility of collaborating in the field of technology enhancement, new product lines and sharing of platform and facilities.

International Trade and Industry Minister Datuk Seri Mustapa Mohamed has commented that this venture is expected to help Proton save millions in investment and development time for a new model.

According to MARC, Proton’s debt level rose by 24.1% year-on-year to RM1.79bil, which led to an increase in the car manufacturer’s debt-to-equity (DE) ratio to 0.58 times for financial year ended March 31, 2014 (FY14) (FY13: 0.38 times).

BY EUGENE MAHALINGAM The Star/Asia News Network

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