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Bank of America tells Detroit’s Big 3 should exit China ‘as soon as they possibly can’

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Detroit automakers General Motors (GM), Ford and Stellantis should abandon the competitive Chinese market “as soon as they possibly can” and focus on the U.S., Bank of America analysts believe.

“We think exiting China from a pure profit and strategic standpoint makes sense, to focus on where you’re making money— which is North American trucks,” John Murphy, BofA auto analyst, said on Tuesday per The Detroit News and CNBC.

Thanks to a longstanding history in China via its century-old Buick brand, GM once minted money in the nation during the 2010s, earning upwards of $2 billion annually at its peak when it sold 4 million vehicles. 

But the rising strength of homegrown rivals like BYD and Geely mean volumes and profits are drying up. GM sales in China dropped to 2.1 million vehicles in 2023, and it posted a loss of $106 million in the past quarter—only its third in 15 years. 

The situation is even less appetizing at Ford and the former Chrysler group—merged with France’s Peugeot Citroen—now known as Stellantis. The duo have thus far failed to carve out a sustainable and significant share of the local car market, the largest in the world with a record 30 million vehicles sold last year.

As a result, Murphy argued financing losses in China going forward will sap the three carmakers dry. He added they should leave “as soon as they can” in order to redeploy their resources towards developing an EV line-up competitive with Elon Musk’s Tesla.

“Focus on your core,” Murphy said, speaking at an event organized by the Automotive Press Association where he presented the bank’s annual Car Wars report. “And China is no longer a core strategy to GM, Ford or Stellantis.”

Fortune reached out to all three Detroit carmakers for a statement, but did not receive a comment by press time. 

Should all three decide to move out of China entirely, it would leave Musk’s Tesla as the only remaining American car brand competitive in all three major global car markets, which also include North America and Europe.

Chinese carmakers have methodically put the squeeze on weaker western brands, largely by hiring European car designers to create stylish vehicles, built in state-of-the art factories staffed with lower-cost labor. Many brands also now have access to technology developed overseas—either through joint venture transfers or the outright acquisition of western brands like Volvo. 

Detroit cannot catch up to Tesla while still funding losses in China

Chinese consumers also have high expectations of their tech—spending a vast amount of time and money on seamless apps like WeChat—and so expect the same from their vehicles.

Indeed one of the reasons why the ID line of EVs sold by the Volkswagen brand—long the undisputed market leader in China—disappointed when measured against expectations was a perceived poor value-for-money. This largely stemmed from its barebones infotainment system and substandard software when compared to rivals. 

On the other hand Tesla, which pioneered the concept of an electric vehicle capable of remote over-the-air updates, still remains competitive to this day by comparison—even as its hardware, i.e. the cars themselves, are already considered ordinary by Chinese consumers. Additionally, with the sole exception of GM’s Buick, Detroit brands like Ford and Chrysler had no heritage, no premium cache, and no technology.

But the recent deflationary downturn in China sparked by an imploding real estate market lead to a brutal price war that many western carmakers cannot or will not follow. It has even pushed homegrown brands to seek their fortune abroad in healthier export markets.

Detroit’s automakers need to make a choice—do they still want to harbor global ambitions or do they want to cut into the substantial lead Musk’s company enjoys on EV manufacturing costs?

“It’s going to be mission critical to ultimately becoming competitive on a price and cost basis with Tesla,” Murphy added. “Pushing volume at the moment and losing money doesn’t make a tremendous amount of sense.”

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