Mercedes CEO Changes Tune on China as ‘Economic Wonder’ Stalls

‘We have to take a little bit of a cautious stance,’ Ola Källenius says in a dramatic walk back from just two years ago.

(Bloomberg) — When Germany last convened its biennial car show, Ola Källenius couldn’t have sounded more bullish about China.

Mercedes-Benz Group AG had enjoyed a string of successful years in the country, the chief executive officer said, but the best was yet to come. “If we look at the GDP growth, if we look at how many buyers come into the segment that is relevant for Mercedes,” he said, “the next 10 years presents probably the biggest absolute growth opportunity for our company.”

Two years later, Källenius delivered a glum assessment of China’s prospects, telling Bloomberg Television ahead of this week’s Munich motor show that the luxury-car maker can’t count on the country for brisk expansion.

“After 30, 40 years of an economic wonder, they’re reaching a level of maturity,” the CEO said of China. “We have to take a little bit of a cautious stance on that and see how things develop, and not expect rapid growth as far as the economy is concerned in the short term.”

Read More: China’s Economy Is Weakening. Here’s Why That Matters

The change in tune reflects a broader decline in sentiment that politicians have been relatively more open about than those in the private sector. In the months before US President Joe Biden referred to China’s economy as a “ticking time bomb,” Chinese officials emerged from meetings with Tesla Inc.’s Elon Musk and General Motors Co.’s Mary Barra with recounts of their upbeat views.

Mercedes felt the sting from China’s slowdown in the first half of the year, with its revenue in the market falling 9.2% to €12.4 billion ($13.4 billion). By contrast, sales rose 9.2% to €18.5 billion in the US, and almost 20% to €12.7 billion in Germany.

Read More:  Key Stories From the Munich Motor Show

Beijing has taken concerted steps in recent days to shore up China’s ailing property sector and expand tax breaks for households. The National Development and Reform Commission — China’s top economic planner — announced plans for a new department that will track and analyze the state of industry, and draft and coordinate policies to promote growth in the private sector. Over the weekend, President Xi Jinping said the country would continue to open up.

That may be too little, too late for automakers that have struggled to gain traction in China. Stellantis NV ceased production of Jeep SUVs last year, with CEO Carlos Tavares citing “political interference” in business as a reason for the move. In July, Mitsubishi Motors Corp. suspended its business in China indefinitely.

While Källenius offered one of the more dramatic turnabouts, he wasn’t alone among carmaker executives in voicing some unease in Munich. China’s auto market hasn’t been as strong as Volkswagen AG expected a year ago, CEO Oliver Blume told Bloomberg TV, though he said he’s optimistic about a comeback.

Just how quickly that recovery plays out is “very difficult to judge,” Robert Bosch GmbH CEO Stefan Hartung told Bloomberg in an interview.

“There is a general hesitation of the Chinese consumer to go and buy durable products,” the head of the world’s largest auto-parts supplier said. “Vehicle manufacturing will grow due to exports, but when it comes to production for domestic consumers, we’ll have to see. The commercial-vehicle market is particularly weak and hasn’t come back from the pandemic.”

–With assistance from Craig Trudell, Oliver Crook and William Wilkes.

(Updates with automakers that have pulled back from China in the eighth paragraph.)

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