While NIO Inc. (NYSE:NIO) and BYD Company Limited (OTCPK:BYDDF, OTCPK:BYDDY) both started off on a different path when it comes to auto manufacturing, with one being an electric vehicle (“EV”) pureplay start-up and the other being a vertically integrated ICE-turned-electric legacy automaker, they now appear to be converging into each other’s turf as competition ramps up. Not long after NIO announced its intentions to break into the tier 3+ market across China to better serve mass market needs, BYD followed suit with two planned sub-brands to penetrate the premium electric passenger vehicle market.
Admittedly, BYD’s market share is substantially larger than NIO’s today – both at home and overseas – while also boasting better fundamentals, which would be supportive of its foray in the premium vehicle segment. Yet, NIO’s penetration into mass-market opportunities could also benefit by driving the volume of scale needed to support its breakeven timeline, which consensus projects to occur by or around mid-decade, while management expects to occur as soon as the third quarter of 2023.
The following analysis will go over both Chinese automakers’ respective market share expansion strategies via their planned sub-brands, and gauge the opportunity that exists for both as well as their implications on both stocks’ prospects.
Overview Of Sub-Brand Strategy
NIO first announced plans for a mass market sub-brand in August 2021, which aligned with its longer-term strategy of building a greater presence in China’s smaller tier 3+ cities and further expand its share of the country’s fast-expanding EV market.
As management had discussed during the second quarter, the sub-brand will aim to offer more affordably priced vehicles to drive higher mass-market appeal. The strategic move is expected to help NIO compete for higher market share, especially in the price segment of Tesla’s (TSLA) Model Y/3, while providing “much better service.”
Source: “Can NIO Stock Recover in 2022?”
The sub-brand, currently expected to launch in 2024, is also expected to be more competitively priced, with vehicle MSRPs in the range of RMB 200,000 ($30,000) to RMB 300,000 ($44,000), taking on a broader cohort of mass market rivals including BYD. The sub-brand’s launch timeline also coincides with the start of production schedule for NIO’s first in-house 800-V battery packs, which would “enable longer ranges and faster charging” compared to general mass market offerings that are currently fitted with 400-V battery packs. NIO also boasts a competitive digital portfolio today that includes in-vehicle AI “NOMI,” “NAD” ADAS, and battery swapping technology that will likely be leveraged by its sub-brands either as an embedded or add-on feature to bolster profit margins. Paired with NIO’s recently launched NT 2.0 vehicle platform, which boasts higher profit margins than its predecessor, the company’s sub-brand products are likely well-positioned for attractive manufacturing economics, while also posing a technological appeal to the burgeoning EV market in China.
NIO likely has another sub-brand under the wraps as well that is speculated to involve offerings starting at RMB 100,000 ($15,000). This would put it in direct competition against SAIC-GM-Wuling, the current EV market leader in China that has captured the likes of budget-sensitive consumers in the tier 3+ markets with its “Hongguang Mini” priced at an impressive $5,000, and its newest “Baojun KiWi” priced at $11,000.
China currently houses the largest share of the global EV market, accounting for more than half of global EV sales. EV sales in the country has already reached a penetration rate of more than 20% (or more than a quarter counting hybrid plug-ins), with adoption being most prominent in more affluent tier 1 and tier 2 cities like Shanghai and Beijing. The trends have favored NIO in recent years, as its share of premium EV sales across the tier 1 and tier 2 cities like Shanghai have steadily grown – as of last year, the company’s portfolio of electric premium SUVs grabbed a 23% share of the passenger vehicle market priced above RMB 350,000 ($50,000+) in China’s financial hub. With an expectation that consistent growth trends would spill into tier 3 and tier 4 cities over the longer-term, NIO management has made mass market penetration a key initiative in its growth plan, hence the planned sub-brands.
Thanks to favorable policy support from the central government, as well as improving range and increasing availability of public charging infrastructure across China, EV sales in the country are starting to gain momentum “beyond the biggest cities.” Over the past two years, tier 2 and tier 3 cities saw the fastest growth in EV sales, from about 4.5% penetration in 2020 to more than 25% in the current year. Meanwhile, demand from tier 4+ cities with a population ranging from 500,000 to under 1 million have also started to pick-up, with EV sales penetration expanding from under 3.5% in 2020 to nearly 20% in the current year.
The remaining growth headroom observed pertaining to EV demand in tier 3+ cities are expected to bode favorably for NIO by the time its sub-brand rolls out in 2024. Between now and then, public charging infrastructure availability is expected to become more prominent in “smaller cities and towns” while “city-level policies that restrict the number of new license plates issues” start to ease in accordance to the nationwide mandate to support EV adoption and decarbonization, which would make strong tailwinds for NIO’s planned mass market offerings.
Risks To Consider
Yet, the Chinese EV landscape is also becoming increasingly competitive. And NIO is not the only EV pureplay looking to better capture global market share by expanding into mass market offerings. In addition to BYD and SAIC-GM-Wuling as mentioned in the earlier section, EV pureplay rivals like XPeng (XPEV) have also introduced models in the sub-$30,000 price range, while Tesla’s Model 3 remains a favorite with increasingly attractive pricing.
As discussed in a previous coverage on NIO, the company risks facing a pricing war in the near-term as competition ramps up, especially as consumer sentiment in the country wanes ahead of mounting macroeconomic uncertainties:
Despite NIO’s in line 3Q22 sales, the drumbeat is growing louder on concerns over consumer weakness heading into the fourth quarter. COVID-induced mobility restrictions and production disruptions are hampering both supply and demand functions of the company’s profit and growth prospects, souring investors’ confidence in the stock. EV industry leader Tesla’s recent decision to pull the “pricing lever” in the region is also dialing up risks of a pricing war in China’s increasingly competitive EV market.
Source: “Is NIO Stock A Buy After Q3’22 Earnings? Keep Your Eyes On COVID Zero.”
But the delayed roll-out of NIO’s mass market offering until 2024 could offer a time cushion for the company to better weather through the near-term industry-specific and macroeconomic headwinds. For one, supply chain constraints stemming from the pandemic and the Russia-Ukraine war – particularly on auto semiconductors – are already showing structural signs of easing. Meanwhile, China’s record-setting household savings of $1.8 trillion YTD, or household savings rate of 30%, accumulated as a pre-emptive measure against looming macroeconomic uncertainties today could also imply a better demand environment in 2024 when cyclical challenges ease. As such, the launch of NIO’s sub-brands scheduled for 2024 could come at an opportune time when the global macroeconomic outlook is expected to improve while the transition to electric continues to gain momentum, offsetting some of the demand risks stemming from increasing competition.
Fundamental And Valuation Implications
The anticipated growth prospects stemming from NIO’s penetration in mass market opportunities with its planned sub-brands are not going to come at a cheap price. Auto manufacturing is one of the most capital-intensive endeavors out there – especially for those that are vertically integrated.
Yet, NIO’s “semi-vertically integrated” manufacturing strategy, which involves in-house designed platforms (and ultimately, battery packs) and internal productions at its joint venture facility with Jianghuai Automobile Group (“JAC”) and partly municipal-owned facility at NeoPark, is expected to absorb some of the high ramp-up costs. The anticipated increase in demand for its mass market products is also expected to drive improved volumes to enable better economies of scale, especially if the company adopts a cross-brand platform-sharing strategy, which will likely fast-track its margin expansion trajectory towards and beyond breakeven by mid-decade.
However, given materialization of said anticipated profits bolstered by NIO’s mass market penetration strategy is still further out into the future, related upside potential may take more time to come into fruition, which inadvertently, means a higher investment risk. This is a particularly critical consideration in today’s market climate for Chinese equities, especially those that are not yet profitable like NIO, given uncertainties spanning regulatory, macroeconomic, and geopolitical challenges.
Overview Of Sub-Brand Strategy
Differing from NIO, BYD is already an established automaker with a sprawling presence across China’s passenger vehicle market (and to a smaller extent, the global commercial vehicle market). Having just transitioned completely from the sale of ICE models to only new energy vehicles including hybrid plug-ins earlier this year, BYD has already taken China’s EV market by storm, with monthly sales by unit consistently exceeding six figures and setting new records. It is also one of the few legacy automakers that have managed to penetrate the burgeoning EV market at a profitable rate within a short period.
Known for its prowess in the mass market vehicle segment, the legacy Chinese automaker is now planning its debut in the premium EV segment in early 2023 via its first sub-brand, “Yangwang” – a contrast to NIO’s longer-term growth strategy. The automaker is slated to debut a premium off-road electric SUV, dubbed the “R1,” as its first product under the Yangwang sub-brand, which will be priced in the RMB 800,000 to RMB 1.5 million range ($110,300 to $200,000+). Similar to BYD’s current new energy offerings, the Yangwang R1 will be offered in a battery-electric (“BEV”) powertrain and plug-in hybrid (“PHEV”) power-train capable of up to 650 hp, with a five- and seven-seater option, and be the “most expensive BYD ever.”
The company has also recently announced intentions of another new brand that “specializes in professional and personalized identifies” as it looks to “build up its brand matrix” and better penetrate overseas opportunities across Asia, Europe, Latin America and other markets. Although details on the second sub-brand remain limited, it will likely complement Yangwang and help usher BYD into China’s “luxury SUV and sports car markets…[which] are the two most profitable vehicle segments [that it] does not have exposure to” yet. Given BYD is already profitable, the higher-priced premium offerings will likely further reinforce its margin expansion trajectory into the longer-term, and bolster its competitive advantage against premium rivals in the market.
While EV penetration in the more affluent tier 1 and tier 2 cities across China is substantially higher than in smaller cities where lower-priced mass market offerings take a precedent appeal, there is still significant growth headroom remaining in the premium EV segment for BYD. As mentioned in the earlier section, EV penetration in Shanghai already exceeds 50%, while in the broader tier 1 and tier 2 cities it averages more than 36%. Plug-in hybrid SUVs are also of greater appeal, accounting for close to a quarter of China’s new passenger vehicle sales today, while remaining the fastest-growing EV segment, which makes strong tailwinds for BYD’s upcoming Yangwang R1 debut (recall that the R1 comes in both the BEV and PHEV powertrain).
Market participants also anticipate BYD’s upcoming sub-brands to produce “the kind of EVs fit for the U.S., a market BYD has yet to enter.” This fits with BYD’s overseas aspirations for its passenger EV business over the longer-term, and would be a favorable complement to its existing presence in North America via its commercial EV sales. The U.S. EV market is expected to see a meaningful increase in adoption rates over coming years, thanks to favorable policy support like the latest “Inflation Reduction Act” (“IRA”), as well as broader improvements to EV battery technologies and range capabilities. Specifically, U.S. EV demand is expected to expand at a five-year CAGR of 28% through 2026, with further acceleration into the second half of the decade. Paired with a similar growth outlook in Canada (though at a comparatively nominal volume on a unit basis), Yangwang and other sub-brand offerings could potentially become an overseas share gainer for BYD.
Risks To Consider
While competition comes to mind as a top risk for automakers, BYD’s reputation as a quality mass market vehicle manufacturer could alleviate some of the said challenges. This is further corroborated by BYD’s pricing power with continued market share gains despite a recent decision to increase its vehicle MSRPs, as opposed to price cuts implemented by Tesla in an attempt to shore up demand.
Instead, a key concern is BYD’s lack of presence in cutting-edge technological competencies, which premium EVs offered by NIO and Tesla tend to use as key selling points:
What BYD lacks that others have is more of a digital DNA…BYD is still a hardware company. As good as it is assembling an EV profitably at scale, it hasn’t proven itself to be a tech-driven software-defined technology company.
While BYD intends for Yangwang to “build a high-end brand with disruptive technologies and products,” there has yet to be any details pertaining to the R1 that would differentiate the premium electric SUV from a digital aspect. Aside from potential ADAS features (which are pretty much standard across premium offerings at this point) speculated from BYD-released images that show the vehicle’s integration of LiDAR sensors, the company has yet to release much information about the vehicle’s performance, range capability, nor technological features. While BYD’s robust balance sheet could fund the development of software capabilities required for differentiation against competing premium offerings, relate innovations would take time to materialize, risking a costly catch-up game in the concentrated premium EV market.
Fundamental And Valuation Implications
In contrast to NIO, BYD is already a profitable company, with margins set for continued expansion as production ramps up on both its existing and upcoming vehicle models. And as mentioned in the earlier section, BYD’s upcoming foray in China’s premium electric SUV market would be beneficial to its bottom-line given said products would be priced higher to offset near-term ramp-up costs, with greater demand in the lucrative vehicle segment expected to support longer-term margin expansion through scale. With related operating cash flow generation realizable in the immediate term, BYD is also less vulnerable to the investment risks facing NIO as discussed in the earlier section.
The stock is currently trading at a significant discount of 1.4x forward EV/sales compared to an average of about 4.1x among U.S. counterparts and 1.7x among Chinese EV start-ups. Given its profitable growth prospects both within the immediate- and over the longer-term, BYD makes a reasonable investment at current levels. But like all Chinese equities, BYD faces a slew of risks specific to the cohort, including China’s macroeconomic uncertainties (e.g., property slump, COVID Zero impacts, etc.) and regulatory challenges. Although BYD’s robust balance sheet has made its valuation relatively less vulnerable to the years-long selloff in Chinese equities, existing and potential investors in the stock should remain aware and not overlook said risks.
Based on the foregoing analysis on NIO and BYD’s longer-term market share expansion strategies, both legacy and start-up Chinese EV makers alike show favorable growth prospects as the global transition to electric continues. While converging strategies will likely introduce further competition within the already highly concentrated EV landscape in China, significant opportunities remain across all vehicle and pricing segments, underscoring the still-nascent nature of the EV industry.
With NIO being an EV upstart that has already established a reputation for making quality and innovative EVs, and BYD being a legacy automaker that has proven a profitable transition to electric is possible, both companies are well-positioned for further market share gains within and beyond the Chinese EV market. This would accordingly support favorable long-term upside potential for both stocks from current levels, especially BYD which boasts better immediate and future fundamental prospects, though macroeconomic, geopolitical, and regulatory risks will remain an overhang on their performance.