High-flying automotive executive turned international fugitive Carlos Ghosn believes the coronavirus pandemic will accelerate consolidation of the global automotive industry, including his former employer Nissan Motor.
In a rare interview following his daring escape to Lebanon from Japan on Dec. 29, the former Nissan chairman said the industry will continue to struggle even after a vaccine is approved.
"Even if they find a vaccine immediately, is going take probably one year before things start to come back to normal. A lot of companies are going to be struggling. They're going to be suffering," he said in an interview on CNBC's "Closing Bell."
He's now writing a book about his time at the Japanese automaker, which he was credited with saving from the brink of ruin before the then-CEO had him arrested on accusations of a variety of financial crimes in 2018. While the U.S. has said Japan can extradite two Massachusetts men who helped Ghosn in his escape, the former executive remains at large and protected in Lebanon where he has a passport and home with his wife.
Ghosn said companies that lack vision will likely become takeover targets for those with better balance sheets or plans for the future, including electric vehicles. He believes Nissan as well as its alliance partners, Renault and Mitsubishi, could be companies that don't survive. Nissan and the alliance didn't immediately have a response to Ghosn's comments about the company after business hours at their headquarters overseas.
"I'm not very – optimistic – knowing what I know," he said. "And particularly – the excuses and the explanation they are giving for the difficulties – not only in Nissan, but also at Renault and Mitsubishi models."
Electric car maker Tesla was a leader, he said. Its shares are up nearly 400% so far this year – Ghosn said the market is rewarding CEO Elon Musk for "establishing a vision" and "giving incredible path towards competing in the rest of the industry."
"It it speaks a lot about where the market is betting the future will be. And I can't blame them," he said. "You know, in a certain way, I can't blame them. Now – is it excessive or not? Well – this will depend a lot on the future performance of Tesla. But I must say that Elon has done a great job into getting out all the potential of the company and exciting the markets. And this is to his benefit."
Ghosn hopes he will one day be able to leave Lebanon without fears of being arrested. He said he "probably will never go back to Japan" unless they change its justice system. Ghosn said he'd like to visit his home country Brazil, France and the U.S., where his children live.
The former auto titan was initially arrested in Japan on accusations of financial misconduct and misuse of corporate resources in November 2018. He escaped Japan on Dec. 29 through an elaborate scheme that allegedly included a former special forces soldier who helped Ghosn hide in a music equipment box.
Ghosn said he was surprised the U.S. last month agreed to extradite U.S. Army Special Forces veteran Michael Taylor and his son, Peter Taylor, to Japanese authorities. He does not expect the incoming Biden administration to assist him with his fight against Japan.
Ghosn reiterated to CNBC that he believes the charges against him were part of a conspiracy by Nissan executives and public officials to stop the well-known executive from further integrating Nissan with French automaker Renault.
Nissan, in a statement Tuesday, defended its actions: "Nissan had carried out a robust and thorough internal investigation that included external lawyers. Based on substantial and convincing evidence found in the investigation, Nissan established that Carlos Ghosn and Greg Kelly intentionally committed serious misconduct and significant violations of corporate ethics. The company contends that the facts surrounding the misconduct will be shown during the court proceedings and the law will take its course."
Kelly, a former colleague and alleged co-conspirator of Ghosn, remains on trial in Japan.