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2009-01-30 11:39

With question marks over senior management and sales tumbling, PSA Peugeot Citroen's enduring silence on strategy raises the prospect it may not survive the worsening car sector crisis in its current form.

The auto manufacturer, number two in terms of sales in Europe behind Germany's Volkswagen, has faced a string of difficulties in recent months and more bad news is expected as economic conditions deteriorate.

"The group is no longer communicating; we're seeing PSA shut itself off in complete isolation, and that does not inspire confidence," said Eric-Alain Michelis, auto sector analyst at Societe Generale Corporate & Investment Banking.

"We don't get the impression that (Chief Executive) Christian Streiff is back operating at 100 percent. In the circumstances, we would like to see a manager working at 120 percent of his capabilities," he said.

Streiff was hospitalised at the end of May 2008 after a health incident. He returned to work in July and said at the time he had "completely recovered".

The company also has to address a number of big changes in senior management.

Citroen brand head Gilles Michel was appointed in December to manage French state bank CDC's strategic investment fund.
Jean-Luc Vergne, human resources director, is leaving on February 13 to be replaced by Denis Martin, currently head of the group's Rennes site. He will be charged with seeing through the voluntary redundancy plan put in place by his predecessor as the group aims to cut 3 550 jobs in France by the end of June.

The group's financing arm, Banque PSA Finance, will also be on the lookout for a new head, after the departure of Herve Guyot to run a government fund for automotive suppliers.

Consolidation wave

"All these departures are raising questions," said a Paris-based analyst. In particular, the market was beginning to wonder if people were leaving in anticipation of a merger or tie-up, he said.

"The financial community knows nothing; PSA has clamped down on communication with investors," he added.
Industry watchers have forecast a wave of consolidation in the sector. Fiat Chief Executive Sergio Marchionne said in December he expected only six volume automakers worldwide to survive, two of them in Europe.

Marchionne has declined to comment on rumours that the Italian manufacturer would be interested in a tie-up with Peugeot, but the two have worked together since 1978, producing passenger and light utility vehicles on common platforms.

"Everyone is talking to everyone, and inevitably PSA is talking to its partners," said a source close to the carmaker.

Analysts say BMW and Mitsubishi could be potential partners for the group, but a tie-up could face political obstacles and calls to avoid job cuts, while the difficulty of raising credit could also stand in the way.

Peugeot's outlook has deteriorated dramatically in the last six months, and in October the group cut its full-year operating margin target to 1.3 percent from an earlier target of 3.5 percent.

"Given the business level in Q4, we do not expect this to be achieved," said Exane BNP Paribas analysts in a research note, adding that they did not expect the group to pay a dividend for 2008 or 2009 either.

The group said earlier this month that its full-year unit sales fell 8.7 percent. Full-year results are due on February 11.

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