Electric cars: Look out for the 'Kodak moment'

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When Apple launched its wildly popular iPhone a decade ago, you would expect other mobile phone makers such as Nokia and Motorola to have come under threat, and so it proved.

As it turned out, they were vanquished by the competition and have all but disappeared into the dusty pages of history.

But the revolution unleashed by the iPhone goes far beyond transforming the telephone sector. Other global household names got obliterated as well.

The vanquished included photo giant Eastman Kodak, which filed for bankruptcy in 2012 – five years after the iPhone was launched.

Its demise came as millions of people switched to storing their photo images digitally after taking them with their iPhones, rather than develop them into photos.

This was despite the fact that Kodak appeared to be in an unassailable position, with a market value of US$8.1 billion, at the time of the iPhone’s launch.

Now another revolution is poised to be unleashed – this time in the car industry, where the emergence of electric cars may lead to the same sort of drastic upheaval.

They are hardly seen on the road yet – but global investment banks such as Morgan Stanley are telling their clients that it is no longer a question as to whether there will be a switchover to electric vehicles but how soon the “Kodak moment” will arrive for the traditional carmakers now nervously eyeing the upstarts that may encroach on their turf.

For us as investors, the big question is what this switchover will mean for large swathes of the economy, and who will be the winners and losers as the old edifice, as we know it, collapses.

It is not that carmakers are taking the competition lying down. As European countries such as Britain and France announced targets like banning new petrol and diesel cars from 2040, major carmakers such as General Motors have announced plans to introduce all-electric vehicles.

Swedish carmaker Volvo has said that from 2019, all its new models will be fully electric or hybrid.

So far, however, much of the spotlight has fallen on American electric car pioneer Tesla, which is already worth more on Wall Street than GM and Ford with a market value of US$59.5 billion (S$80 billion). It is targeting annual sales of one million electric vehicles within the next three years.

However, what is shaping the electric car revolution may turn out to be China, rather than the United States, as Beijing takes a big wager on such vehicles as part of an ambitious plan to transform the country into an advanced industrial power.

As the Financial Times noted, China has numerous reasons to hate the combustion engine.

Fossil-fuel cars are dirty and account for about 30 per cent of the country’s air pollution. The fuel they consume makes up a big chunk of China’s oil import bill and this is regarded as a major strategic vulnerability by Beijing. Payment has to be made in US dollars, making it necessary for Beijing to keep a mountain of foreign reserves to keep the cars humming.

But while the hype is on Tesla, China is already the world’s largest maker of electric vehicles. Last year, it sold 507,000 of them – or about 45 per cent of the world’s total production. China also has a target to make seven million electric and hybrid vehicles by 2025.

It has also made great strides in developing a network of stations to charge electric vehicles, with 171,000 already in place and even more to come in the next three years. This number is far higher than the 44,000 charging outlets and 16,000 electric stations available in the US.

The snag is that the existing batteries to power electric cars have only half of the capacity to sustain a travelling range of 400km, which is what many consumers want for their vehicles. Consequently, we can expect the big surge in demand for electric cars once there is a technological breakthrough that enables the power density range of batteries to reach 400km.

Not surprisingly, stock pundits have been sourcing for possible winners in the electric car revolution. These include Hong Kong-listed Geely Auto, whose parent Zhejiang Geely is the owner of Volvo. Its share price has more than tripled to over HK$26 (US$3.33) in the past 12 months.

Since buying Volvo seven years ago, Geely has been working to improve the quality of its cars with Volvo know-how. Its China sales climbed 50 per cent last year to 766,000 vehicles and sales are expected to go above the one million mark this year.

But some stock pundits believe that investors may be better off taking a wager on the makers of the lithium batteries that power electric cars. China has two of the top five lithium battery makers – Hong Kong-listed BYD, which also produces electric cars, and privately owned CATL.

In particular, the spectacular performance of BYD’s share price is worth highlighting.

Despite reporting a 25 per cent drop in net profit to 1.61 billion yuan (S$330 million, US$245 million) for the first six months to Aug 31 this year, BYD’s share price has climbed by 39 per cent since then to nearly HK$49.

There are also pundits who suggest taking a bet on lithium – the key component for making electric car batteries. This has sent the share prices of lithium producers soaring.

In particular, there is a US-listed exchange-traded fund, Global X Lithium & Battery Tech ETF, with exposures to companies operating in the sector. Its price has shot up 54 per cent so far this year.

Still, investors should not merely confine themselves to seeking the winners in the emerging electric car market. Instead, they should also focus on the possible losers and take pre-emptive steps to switch out of them.

If electric cars take off in a big way, that will have a dramatic impact on the demand for crude oil.

While the Organisation of Petroleum Exporting Countries or Opec has predicted that crude consumption will grow by a further 16.4 million barrels a day to 109 million by 2040, Saudi Arabia’s action to sell off chunks of state oil giant Saudi Aramco to fund diversification away from oil suggests that it is hedging its bets.

Questions may also be raised about the valuations of the assets owned by oil majors such as ExxonMobil, Shell and BP, which are the big dividend paymasters for many investors.

The advent of electric vehicles will also likely give rise to another phenomenon – driverless cars controlled by a computer rather than a person.

And since an estimated 90 per cent of road accidents are the result of driver error, eliminate the driver, you eliminate the error – and the accident will not occur.

That begs the question: If the risks of driving are removed via driverless cars, what impact will this have on the motor insurance industry?

Of course, fresh risks may surface, such as hacking the computers installed in these cars.

But trust the motor insurers to come up with an innovative solution, rather than face obliteration like Kodak when it was confronted with the threat of smartphones.

In many ways, the electric car revolution will reshape the global economy and geopolitics in a drastic manner that we scarcely believed to be possible even a few years ago. As investors, we stand to reap enormous benefits too, if we position ourselves correctly.

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