Italians and Americans are both in mourning over the sudden death of former Fiat Chrysler Automobiles (NASDAQ:FCAU) CEO Sergio Marchionne at 66.
Marchionne, who died of complications after surgery, had saved both Italy’s Fiat and America’s Chrysler, creating Fiat Chrysler, which had been worth nearly $30 billion at the time of his death.
Once the U.S. market opened for trade July 25, that quickly fell to under $26 billion, as 10% of its market cap disappeared.
That’s because Marchionne was a one-of-a-kind executive, who broke through Fiat’s bureaucracy in the middle of the 2000s, moving his own office to the engineering floor, then saved Chrysler during the financial crisis with rapper Eminem voicing ads proclaiming its cars were “Imported from Detroit.” He also re-introduced Alfa Romeo and spun-out Ferrari (NASDAQ:RACE), which is now worth $25 billion, almost as much as Fiat Chrysler.
Other Than That, The Play Was Fine
Marchionne’s successor is Englishman Mike Manley, 54, called a “masterful manager” by the auto press, who has transformed the Jeep brand into a global automaker with 10 plants in six countries. Jeep is the brand advertised on the jerseys of Juventus, the Fiat-backed soccer club that just signed Cristiano Ronaldo.
But Manley, who quadrupled Jeep sales over the last decade, must immediately face the Trump trade war and a lagging presence in China, now one of the world’s biggest auto markets.
Ironically, Marchionne died just as Fiat Chrysler was announcing record earnings, which are reported in Euros. For the quarter the company earned about $882 million on revenue of $31.6 billion, at the current Euro-dollar rate of $1.17.
Unlike General Motors (NYSE:GM), which lowered its guidance on earnings for the rest of the year, Fiat Chrysler maintained its guidance, predicting earnings of 5 Euros per share ($5.85) on 125 billion Euros of revenue ($146.2). The second quarter numbers were down 2% in Euro terms, but up 9% in constant currency, and net debt was reduced by 1.3 billion Euros ($1.52 billion).
We Only Hear Bad News
Markets, however, aren’t listening to the good news. The stock is now trading at its low for the year, although even with the July 25 loss it’s still the best-performing car stock, up 170% over the last two years, 10 times the gain of GM or Toyota Motor (NYSE:TM), almost six times better than Tesla (NASDAQ:TSLA).
In addition to worrying about tariffs destroying profits, investors are also concerned about Dodge Ram truck production issues, and whether the company can make it on its own. Marchionne himself had once proposed a merger with GM.
But Fiat Chrysler now has barely half the market cap of Tesla, which has barely one-tenth its sales. Fiat Chrysler’s market cap is also a tiny fraction of Toyota’s, and three-quarters that of Ford Motor (NYSE:F). It is, in short, the most under-valued stock in an under-valued sector.
Manley’s turn at the wheel has seen Fiat Chrysler become more like Ford, de-emphasizing small cars like the Fiat Arbarth for big trucks and Sport Utility Vehicles. Some have suggested the company be renamed Jeep-Ram, because that’s where the money is coming from.
The Google Connection
Fiat Chrysler is woefully undervalued, and has an invaluable ally in Alphabet’s (NASDAQ:GOOG, NASDAQ:GOOGL) Waymo, which is producing 62,000 self-driving Chrysler minivans. Those vans will be at the heart of its own ride-hailing efforts next year, and its need for production could offer Fiat Chrysler a way forward in both electric and self-driving vehicles.
If Waymo decides to back this play with an investment in the automaker, investors could crowd in. Google could buy Fiat Chrysler for the equivalent of couch cushion money.
Dana Blankenhorn is a financial and technology journalist. He is the author of the historical mystery romance The Reluctant Detective Travels in Time, available now at the Amazon Kindle store. Write him at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter at @danablankenhorn. As of this writing he owned shares in F.
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