Back to business: Iran, a new emerging market

Iran has reopened its markets to the automotive industry. The environment is attractive, but interested parties must keep an eye on customer preferences and new legislative initiatives. By Philipp Grosse Kleimann, Santiago Castillo and Alexander Brenner of Roland Berger Strategy Consultants

In a world beset with structural economic problems, automotive investment locations with high-growth potential resting on sound economic fundamentals seem few and far between. On 16 January 2016, it was announced that Iran is in compliance with the UN nuclear agreement, resulting in almost all international economic sanctions against it being lifted.

The critical question is how the overall market has changed since those sanctions were imposed. Automotive players looking for lucrative opportunities will need a thorough understanding of recent developments and the particulars of the Iranian market: the competitive environment, the specific regulatory and taxation conditions, and current customer preferences.

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A hurried return to the market

Although most sanctions preventing European firms trading with Iran were already lifted at the beginning of 2014, the automotive industry has been hit significantly. After reaching a peak of 1.5 million units sold in 2011, it crashed in 2013 with sales of only 670,000 units. By 2014, sales had recovered significantly, to 930,000. Now the storm has passed and former trading partners are scrambling to get back into Iran. Peugeot is back with a new Iran Khodro joint venture that includes €427m (US$483m) in debt waivers and discounts for the Iranian manufacturer. Peugeot and Iran Khodro plan to produce Peugeot’s 2008 SUV and the Peugeot 208, with the first vehicles rolling off production lines in 2017. Daimler, which gave up its 30% stake in Khodro Diesel in 2010, has already announced plans to restart sales and local production.

Daimler predicts intense demand for commercial vehicles, trucks in particular. Players such as Audi, Volkswagen, BMW, and Hyundai who, until now, have not had a manufacturing presence in the country, started exploring the market and holding discussions with Iranian OEMs in mid-2015. There is still a perceptible caution for now: BMW has said it will hold back and see how political and economic developments unfold. Fiat Chrysler has described the Iranian market as very promising but too early to judge. Skeptics note that if Iran does not stick to the agreement, sanctions may be reintroduced at any point. At the end of February 2016, however, Iranians overwhelmingly reelected Rouhani and his moderate allies, a positive sign that Iran will abide by the terms of the nuclear agreement.

Solid fundamentals

The ongoing sensitivity of the political situation notwithstanding, the fundamentals of the Iranian market are highly promising. Iran has a population of 80 million – roughly the same size as Germany – half of which is under the age of thirty and highly educated, in particular in science, engineering, and technology. The IMF has predicted economic growth of 4.4% in Iran from 2016 onwards if sanctions remain lifted. Although the country continues to be dependent on oil revenues, it has managed to gradually reduce the share of government revenues based on oil exports. As of December 2015, the share of oil in Iran’s budget was 26.1% – a decrease of 13.8% over same period last year.

Iran’s car industry is its second-largest after its oil industry and prior to the sanctions, Iran was the 20th largest car manufacturer in the world. The automotive industry employs 700,000 people directly and 2.4 million people indirectly in related industries, equivalent to 10% of the employable population of the country.

Iran exports vehicles only to some countries in the Middle East region (mainly Iraq and Egypt), as well as to Belorussia, Algeria, Senegal and Venezuela. Its central geographic location means it has significant growth potential as an export hub. Peugeot has announced plans to export 30% of the vehicles it produces in Iran, taking advantage of a government scheme to give generous tax breaks and other incentives to foreign investors who construct factories in Iran and export more than 30% of their production.

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The market potential for new cars is huge (as illustrated in the accompanying chart). Premium car sales are expected to outperform the overall market with an annual growth rate of 66% until 2020, while the rest of the market will grow by 16% within the same period. Iran’s young population will reach its peak purchasing power by 2040. Currently, there are 147 cars for every 1,000 (the UK, by comparison, has 519 cars per 1,000 people, and the USA 809).

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The Iranian government has introduced various initiatives to modernise the country’s fleet, which on average is about 11 years old, such as new emissions standards and a vehicle scrappage scheme, which was introduced in 2005 with the aim of taking old and inefficient cars off the roads. In 2015, over 320,000 vehicles were scrapped as part of the scheme and the government predicts that 200,000 vehicles will be traded in every year for the next ten to 15 years.

Foreign brands continue to enjoy a positive reputation among the public, despite attracting the ire of Iranian officials as a result of their retreat back then. According to an August 2015 study, Iranians perceive imported goods as being of superior quality, with 49% of those interviewed saying they would be interested in purchasing an imported car. But importing complete cars to Iran has never been a big business due to high import tariffs; CBU imports dropped to between 35 and 40,000 units during the sanctions. They recovered rapidly in 2014, however, to 106,000 units, and this upward trend is expected to continue as historically high tariffs are slowly being reduced. A 100% import tariff for new cars was reduced to 90% in 2006 and lowered again to 70% in 2010.

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Hybrid vehicles, however, are an exception – an import tax of 4% was set in order to promote their purchase, resulting in a 112% increase in hybrid vehicles sales in 2014. Although Iran is the world’s seventh-largest oil producer, it has limited refining capacity and is seeking to promote hybrid vehicles and cars that run on natural gas. The Iranian government disagrees over whether to continue to reduce import tariffs or not. In 2015, a group of Iranian parliamentarians, as well as the head of Iran’s customs administration, called for an increase in car tariffs in order to boost government revenue and reduce imports to protect local manufacturing. It is likely, however, that the Iranian government will continue to relax import tariffs considering its long-term goal of joining the WTO, among whose members car import tariffs are 3.5% on average.

Even very high tariffs and a ban on engines with capacities higher than 2.5 litres have not dented wealthy Iranians’ enthusiasm for luxury models in recent years. From March 2011 to 2012, during the height of the sanctions, 563 Porsche models were imported into Iran at a total cost of US$50m dollars. On top of that, customers had to pay the 90% import tariff.

How the Iranian government supports a more modern car parc

Emission standards: Since March 2012, compliance with Euro IV standard is mandatory for all locally-produced gasoline and diesel vehicles; compliance with Euro V is mandatory for imported vehicles, and it is expected that from 2016, imported vehicles will have to comply with Euro VI. Moreover, authorities have introduced restricted low-emission traffic zones.

Alternative powertrains: Iran has the second largest fleet of compressed natural gas (CNG) powered vehicles globally. The aim is that 60% of vehicles sold in the country must run on natural gas or on dual-fuel – so far this regulation is not being enforced.

Scrappage programme: Authorities want to take some 200,000 vehicles per year out off the road, replacing them with newer, more efficient cars. The programme started in 2005, and reduced the average age of vehicles in use from 17 years to 10.6 within eight years. It is expected that within 10-15 years, about 2.2 million vehicles will be replaced.

New beginning, new rules?

Iran has traditionally maintained government monopolies in the oil sector and major manufacturing industries. In recent years, the government has gradually reduced its ownership in Iran Khodro and Saipa, the two largest Iranian OEMs, down from around 50% in 2008 to 20% in 2010. Smaller Iranian players, however, continue to complain of an effective duopoly and preferential treatment for Iran Khodro and Saipa. It is to be expected that the government’s priority is to build up the domestic industry’s expertise while continuing to shield it from largely foreign competition. That’s why CBU strategies will remain efficient only as a mid-term strategy, and only for low volume models. Iran Khodro announced in 2014 that it can manufacture the TU3 engines for type 2 Peugeot 206 cars “completely on its own” and “without assistance from Peugeot”. Greenfield approaches in Iran are untested terrain for foreign investors, but given the country’s current policy priorities, joint ventures remain the best entry to the country’s vehicle market.

Foreign investors who are prepared to navigate Iran’s intersection of regulatory requirements, market conditions and its unique political and cultural landscape will be well-positioned in what is promising to be a highly lucrative market.

This article appeared in the Q2 2016 issue of Automotive Megatrends Magazine. Follow this link to download the full issue.