China might want Jeep but Trump could slam brakes on deal

Key Points
  • Great Wall Motor is interested in some or all of Fiat Chrysler
  • Jeep is seen as strongest brand in Fiats Chrysler's portfolio
  • Great Wall is China's biggest SUV manufacturer
Customers look at a Jeep vehicle for sale on the sales lot of a Chrysler Jeep Dodge dealership in Miami.
Getty Images

A Chinese auto giant has revealed it is interested in buying Fiat Chrysler Automobiles (FCA), sparking rumors that the real prize is Fiat's Jeep brand.

Great Wall Motor is China's biggest SUV and pick-up truck manufacturer and has confirmed it is pursuing all or part of FCA.

"With respect to this case, we currently have an intention to acquire," a statement from Great Wall said on Monday. "We are interested in [FCA]."

FCA responded that it has not been approached by Great Wall Motor in connection with the Jeep brand or any other matter relating to its business.

Jeep, which celebrated its 75th birthday last year, has a reputation that goes back to World War Two, when the rugged vehicles were used extensively by the U.S. military.

Yale Zhang, head of Shanghai-based consultancy Automotive Foresight, said in several media outlets that Jeep could well be the real target.

"Jeep is the most logical choice, since [Great Wall] wants to be the largest SUV maker in the world.

"The Jeep brand is recognized globally. I think Great Wall Motor is eyeing a global strategy, not just the United States."

In a note published last week, auto analysts at Jefferies said 100 percent ownership of Jeep JV by a Chinese firm "could be attractive".

President Donald Trump meets with CEO of General Motors Mary Barra (L), CEO of Fiat Chrysler Automobiles Sergio Marchionne (2nd R) and Fiat Chrysler Head of External Affairs Shane Karr (R) in the Roosevelt Room of the White House on January 24, 2017 in Washington, DC.
Shawn Thew | Pool | Getty Images

In January, President Donald Trump met with several auto executives as he tried to encourage them to bring manufacturing back to the shores of America.

A war of words is also bubbling between Beijing and Washington over trade after the U.S. announced on Friday it would start an investigation into China's alleged theft of U.S. intellectual property.

Jefferies said in the current environment, selling an American brand to a Chinese firm could prove tricky.

"The first question that comes to mind is the political feasibility of such a transaction given auto OEM M&A (original equipment manufacturing mergers and acquisitions) is often held to a different standard in the current political environment," the note read.

Jefferies, however, suggested that Fiat Chrysler's recent history of ownership changes and little obvious anti-trust concerns could speed the deal.

The research firm also cited previous examples of Chinese firms as investors in European car manufacturers, noting their positive track record.

FCA already makes some Jeep models in China itself, under a partnership deal with local automaker Guangzhou Automobile.

Fiat Chrysler also owns brands such as Ram, Alfa Romeo and Maserati.

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