By Maria Bartiromo
With the dramatic news about plant closings at General Motors (GM ) and more job cuts at both GM and Ford, one name keeps popping up as the man to help Detroit make a sharp U turn -- Carlos Ghosn, chief executive of Nissan (NSANY ) and Renault. A former Detroit chieftain told me: "There are real structural problems at GM, and it's beyond one person. It's one thing to close plants down, but you're still paying those workers." Ghosn is more circumspect. When I recently spent time with him in New York, he was guarded about telling GM or Ford how to fix their businesses. And when I asked about Bill Ford reportedly twice offering him the No. 2 job at Ford Motor (F ), he declined to comment. He did, however, handicap the odds of his Motor City rivals pulling off a turnaround like the one he engineered at Nissan.
What chance do Ford and GM have to be considered winners again?
For any viable [turnaround], the chances are 50%. I gave myself 50% when I came to Japan.... I think any auto maker has [a chance], particularly when you have a great name and you have a lot of people around the world. I am not as pessimistic about [the industry as others are].
The last time we spoke you said business was tough in September and the beginning of October. How are things going today?
We are seeing a big shift from big cars to smaller cars. We are also seeing people shift to smaller engines. I would be bearish in 2006. I am talking about the industry and the environment. Nissan is doing well, but the environment is going to be much more difficult.
Why have things been so tough?
Probably what you are seeing is that people who like larger cars, pickup trucks, luxury sedans, and SUVs are waiting to see where energy prices will be. People who want to buy fuel-efficient cars...will continue to do so. But people who are attracted to bigger engines are waiting.
The price of oil has finally begun to push consumers to look for fuel-efficient cars. How significant is this change?
We are going to have the arrival on the market not only of more fuel-efficient engines but also more environmentally friendly engines. We can't produce enough Altimas and Sentras, [which is] the smallest car in the lineup.
Is there any economic vibrancy in Europe right now?
The market is mainly stagnant, and it is stagnant for one reason: It is a mixture of countries, each one in a different phase. You have Eastern Europe, which is extremely vibrant. There is investment and competition...overall, it's going in the right direction. But then you have Western Europe, which is going through adjustments as it tries to combine with the rest of the world. So normally when you have countries looking for direction, you have some stagnation. I am cautious for the near term.
What about China? Is that the market that will make or break companies like yours in the 21st century?
Nissan continues to invest heavily in China, Thailand...we want to grow in India. We are starting to build a plant in the Mideast. We are particularly focused on Asia. Renault is not going where Nissan is, but [they will try] to complement [each other]. You can imagine the following scenario, where Renault will take advantage of Nissan's presence in China and in Southeast Asia...and Nissan will leverage Renault's presence in India.
Tell me more about Asia.
That is where the action will take place. You have Japan coming back, and I knew it was happening. [But] I was the only one saying it. The Japanese have been working very hard... Japan will still be the second-largest economy and competing at a high level for a long time. China and India are also waking up and doing the right things. You have Southeast Asia...Malaysia, Singapore, and many other countries trying to come back on the economic scene. The next 10 years will be the Asian years.
Maria Bartiromo is the host of CNBC's Closing Bell