Omer Zaheer Meer

WTO changed the global attitude towards business competition and generally opened up markets globally as compared to before. However some countries still choose to protect certain local industries in view of supporting local populace and enhancing regulatory protection of consumers. Pakistan’s automotive (car) industry has also been amongst such industries, protected from outright direct competition in some ways by the Government. The question then is whether this industry has passed on the desired benefits to the populace in Pakistan?

The automotive sector in Pakistan is not typical manufacturing or technology based but rather focused on local assembly. The sector has seen growth for quite some time with exponential growth in 2006 and 2007 fuelled by low-interest auto-loans from the banking sector. The growth slowed and did not reach the same levels again. It employs between five to seven thousands people and has been amongst the leading sectors of indirect taxes for the treasury. The annual turnover is claimed to be PKR 300 billion with a contribution of 2.8pc to GDP.

The sector has great potential for growth as not only does Pakistan possess one of the largest proportion of young population with an urbanisation trend, the car to people ratio of approximately 1/100 is still one of the lowest in emerging economies. Despite this huge potential, there are some serious issues hindering the sector from realising its full potential which needs to be addressed.

Despite a lapse of sixty two years since the start of the automotive industry in Pakistan, no significant transfer of car manufacturing technology has taken place. The local manufacture of car components is minimal with that of the vital components virtually non-existent. To make matters worse there are only three major car assemblers in Pakistan namely Pak Suzuki Motors, Honda Atlas Cars and Indus Motors with only Pak Suzuki Motors focusing on smaller cars.

Some of the most worrying issues facing the automotive sector are as below:

*     Weak regulations governing the sector

*     Lack of attention to international standards of safety particularly in the small car sector

*     Failing to meet the demand possible with available capacity

*     High prices with illegal premiums charged for newly assembled cars

*     Price fixation practices amongst the cartel of the three major players

*     No real progress towards car manufacturing technology transfer to achieve the goal of self-reliance

*     Extensive barriers to entry for new aspirants

*     Lack of ability to compete with cost-effective and high quality products from neighbouring countries

What’s most worrying is the undocumented cartel system that seems to be operating amongst the three major assemblers resulting in exorbitant prices as well as lower quality products. Pakistan shares economic pressures, a large middle class and high demand for small economical cars with its’ arch-rival India. While in neighbouring India cars have long been manufactured locally, we’re still priding ourselves on mere assembly.

Perhaps what’s more relevant is that while TATA India has successfully provided economical cars like TATA Nano, initially launched for just one hundred thousand Indian Rupees, the most economical in Pakistan is still costs almost 5 times that price. Initiative like Nano attracted the burgeoning middle class in India particularly families, away from the two wheelers with significant growth in market demand for cars. The importance of volume and expanding the market is apparently missed on the major players in Pakistan with extreme focus on excessive margins at the peril of the ordinary consumer already hit by a lack of sufficient competition.

Pak Suzuki Motors which holds the lion’s share of almost 60pc of the four-wheeler industry sells smaller cars with despicable security features despite sky-high prices as compared to smaller cars in neighbouring India. Similarly the quality of bigger cars manufactured by all three leaves much to be desired with “Pakistan assembled” still being a symbol of lower quality instead of the prestige that should be associated with it.

All this is happening despite the favourable Government policies of the past and present like reducing the age limit of imported used cars from 5 to just 3 years as well as imposing other restrictions on imports of used vehicles. Such restrictions resulted in a massive decline of almost 62pcin the import of used cars in just the first half of the last fiscal year (2014) alone.

This obviously helped the local automotive assembly sector to grow sales volume but instead of passing some of the benefits to the consumers, they choose to increase the sales prices too despite the strengthening of Pak Rupee and reduced input costs. To make this point clear, consider that just during the first quarter of the last fiscal year (2014) all three local car assemblers reported solid growth. The smallest of the three, Honda Atlas Cars with approximately 17pc market share reported a strong increase in profitability of 170pc to PKR 632 million. Similarly both Indus Motor (assemblers of Toyota) and Pak Suzuki Motors registered growth of 29pc and 22pc respectively. As outlined above, the increase in sale volumes, the increased sales prices and the exchange gains were the main factors for this high growth.

The truth is that the automotive (car) assembly industry is heavily concentrated with consumers paying a substantial sum for cars that are not worthy of their costly price tags. High custom duties and import restrictions strengthen this monopoly of the prevailing cartel, leaving the consumer with very few options. To improve the situation and grow the automotive sector in Pakistan, the Government should undertake the following major steps:

*     Strong regulation to protect consumer interests

*     Legislation against cartels

*     Remove regulatory barriers to entry

*     Promote and encourage transfer of technology to Pakistan

*     Tax breaks and incentives for new investors to enter the market

*     Lesser restrictions on import of vehicles including used ones to allow greater competition and hence better deals for the consumers

*     Stronger legislation regarding cars safety and emission standards

The automotive sector has the potential to rise from the current state of a purely assembly operation to an indigenous manufacturing one while increasing the market demand many folds. With the above recommended steps and a strong political will the dream of self-reliance and earning foreign exchange through quality exports of cars can become a reality.