Global automakers are lining up to buy Fiat Chrysler. Here's why

  • Deal making in the auto sector is expected as technology and ownership trends change.
  • Fiat Chrysler Automobiles is prized by others for its U.S. market share.
  • A new global giant would look to compete with Volkswagen Group and Toyota.
2019 Ram 1500 pickup truck of the Fiat Chrysler Automobiles (FCA) is displayed at the North American International Auto Show (NAIAS) on January 15, 2018 in Detroit, Michigan.
The Asahi Shimbun | Getty Images
2019 Ram 1500 pickup truck of the Fiat Chrysler Automobiles (FCA) is displayed at the North American International Auto Show (NAIAS) on January 15, 2018 in Detroit, Michigan.

Fiat Chrysler grabbed the spotlight this week in the M&A rumor mill.

Wall Street Journal revealed that French automaker Peugeot approached Fiat Chrysler Automobiles (FCA) about a potential merger earlier this year and then the Financial Times reported that Renault aims to merge with Japanese partner Nissan before making its own bid for the Italian-American car maker.

A major part of Fiat Chrysler's appeal to potential buyers is their 12 percent North America market share. In the U.S., the auto maker is largely focused on pick-ups and SUVs, enjoying margins above the global industry average and broadly on par with rivals General Motors and Ford.

Here are the global automakers that could be fighting it out to own the maker of Jeeps, Rams and Maseratis.

Peugeot the best fit?

Peugeot has come under some criticism for being too heavily exposed to European demand. Around 90 percent of Peugeot Auto sales are made in Europe where analysts widely believe the cycle is close to peak and likely to lose momentum.

"The logic is very high for a Fiat Chrysler and Peugeot tie-up and has been for some time," Philippe Houchois, Jefferies Equity Research Analyst told CNBC Thursday.

If Peugeot want to diversify their geographic mix by expanding in the US, they can attempt to do so organically but even if successful, it may not make enough of a difference for the overall shape of the group.

For Fiat Chrysler, tying up its European business with Peugeot would bring it instant scale and improved access to a market where competition appears to be dwindling.

Regulation over emissions In Europe has led some automakers such as General Motors, Ford and Honda to begin pulling out or downsizing. Given more reach within the market, Fiat Chrysler could quickly soak up any sales gap left by rivals.

Discussions are, however, very political.

"It's one thing to get shareholder and management support but it's another thing to get backing from governments. A key question is whether there would there be appetite and understanding between French and Italian states about how to resize the entity," said Houchois.

Renault-Nissan instead?

Fiat Chrysler's North America business would also be prized by a combined Renault-Nissan.

It has been reported that Renault first wants to sign off on a full merger with Nissan before then carrying out another merger, potentially with FCA. A combination of Renault, Nissan and Fiat Chrysler would be viewed as a viable rival to the current global auto leaders, Volkswagen Group and Toyota.

If the Renault-Nissan tie-up hit the rocks, the deal looks even more plausible.

Renault would be left with no market share in the U.S. and in that case, they might consider reducing their stake in the Nissan and reinvesting in Fiat Chrysler.

Employees working on a car assembly line of France's Renault and China's Dongfeng factory in Wuhan, Hubei province, China on on February 1, 2016.
Johannes Eisele | AFP | Getty Images
Employees working on a car assembly line of France's Renault and China's Dongfeng factory in Wuhan, Hubei province, China on on February 1, 2016.

Could China buy Fiat Chrysler?

Investors are also considering whether a Chinese buyer might be interested in the Italian-American automaker.

In the Japanese and Korean car markets, domestic players grew strong by controlling the market and by being low cost. In turn, they recycled domestic profits into their export strategies and became global players this way.

Chinese car makers, however, do not have control of their domestic market and therefore cannot grow in the same way that Japanese and Korean auto firms did in previous decades.

Therefore, for China's auto firms, the most feasible way to go global is through M&A. The current political backdrop of a trade war makes it unlikely that FCA, with its strong U.S. legacy and footprint, would be an easy target.

The car industry has been ripe for more consolidation without ever fully delivering on analyst expectations. But with the emergence of autonomous driving and a predicted fall in car ownership, Houchois predicts M&A will be a hot topic.

"Consolidation is not just about getting stronger ahead of the next cycle, it's about how to prepare for structural change in the industry business model. And it's a discussion worth having before the cycle turns."