SUNDAY TIMES - Car sales tit-for-tat after Merc backs out
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Sunday Times Business By DAVID FURLONGER, 2017-03-12 00:00:00.0

Car sales tit-for-tat after Merc backs out

CLOSER INSPECTION: Mercedes-Benz South Africa has not released detailed sales figures since 2014.
Image: KEVIN SUTHERLAND

Mercedes-Benz South Africa is under pressure to back down on its refusal to publish details of monthly sales of cars and commercial vehicles. Its stance has called into question the credibility of South Africa's vehicle sales data, used to gather insights into the state of the economy.

BMW South Africa has retaliated by withholding details of its market performance, and other companies have now threatened to follow suit.

MBSA has indicated it may change its policy if required to do so by the Department of Trade and Industry. Sources in the department say it wants the carmaker to fall in line with the industry, but there is no sign of imminent action.

Local manufacturers and importers are required to report sales of all vehicles each month. Most do so in detail. In each category - cars, light commercial vehicles, medium commercials, heavy commercials, extra-heavy commercials and buses - they show the numbers of each brand and model sold.

Some also reveal which market segments vehicles are sold to: rental fleets, government departments or the public.

The information is meat and drink to economists. It shows consumer spending and affordability trends; credit trends; corporate and government confidence in business conditions; and the car-rental view of tourism demand.

In short, vehicle sales are a barometer of real and potential economic activity.

Since November 2014, however, MBSA has provided only two figures: an aggregate for car sales and another for commercials. It is the second time the company has taken this action. Its position is guided by German parent Daimler, which was fined à1-billion last year by the European Commission for colluding with European truckmakers between 1997 and 2011.

In 2011, following the issuing of European antitrust regulations, Daimler advised group subsidiaries that the sharing of information among competitors could lead to collusion. It was at the end of that year that MBSA first withheld figures.

That decision was reversed a few months later, after the Department of Trade and Industry, which publishes the monthly sales, issued a directive to companies to share their figures. It made clear such sharing was not considered collusive here.

But then, after what is understood to have been a briefing with certain department officials in 2014, MBSA said it was no longer obliged to report in full. This month, MBSA said in a statement that its non-disclosure attitude was still "in accordance with internal policies uniform to all our global operations.

"Due to the fact that the exchange of data by competitors is a sensitive issue, we will comply with our group-wide internal standard. We ... would always comply with legislation in the countries where we operate, so if there was legislation that stipulated reporting in more detail, we would comply."

Nico Vermeulen, director of the National Association of Automobile Manufacturers of South Africa, said the industry was anxious for the department to reissue its original directive, requiring MBSA to publish sales in full. A formal request is likely this month.

Of course, industry frustration with MBSA is also about competition. MBSA has full access to the market performance of its competitors, while its own remains hidden.

Volkswagen South Africa MD Thomas Schaefer said: "It's ridiculous that Merc doesn't report but benefits from everyone else's figures. It's nonsense."

Audi South Africa, part of the Volkswagen South Africa group, has considered limiting its own reporting. It might still act, Schaefer said. At least one other company said it was considering similar action.

BMW South Africa said it would not share full results again until Mercedes did so. Spokesman Diederik Rietsma said: "We have always supported the reporting system, but it needs everyone on board to make it work."

Nicholas Nkosi, head of personal markets at Standard Bank Vehicle and Asset Finance, said: "Every time a company fails to report fully, it dilutes the importance of the overall numbers. Any further withdrawals would dilute the validity of the figures and have consequences for economic forecasting."