Oct 18, 2008

Business - Car market decline spurs fresh Big Three Merger talk

Renault on Friday denied it was in talks to buy Jeep from Chrysler as record low auto sales and the financial crisis spur fresh merger talk a bout the Big Three US automakers in a new global consolidation round.

General Motors Corp, Ford and Chrysler, seeking to maximize cash returns while battling with a declining home market due to high petrol prices and an economic recession, are expected to put brands both in the United States and overseas for sale or to seek tie-ups to slash production costs.

People familiar with the talks said private equity firm Cerberus was in talks to sell all or part of Chrysler LLC's operations to Renault SA and General Motors Corp as it considers a range of deals that could break up the No. 3 U.S. automaker. But a Renault spokeswoman denied this.

"There are no discussions. We are focusing on dealing with the current market situation," spokeswoman Frederique Le Greves said.

Renault last week appointed Patrick Pelata has chief operating officer to leave more time to chief executive Carlos Ghosn to focus on strategy, including mergers and acquisitions.

Ghosn is also chief executive at Renault's 44 percent Japanese subsidiary and alliance partner Nissan Motor .

Ghosn has never hidden his desire to see Renault return to the United Sates but the focus of expansion was on emerging markets such as China.

He said recently that the situation on the U.S. car market meant that "something will have to happen" and that any big deals would be opportunity driven.

The sources said that Renault had expressed an interest in Chrysler that has spanned possibilities from an alliance to an acquisition of Jeep, widely considered to be Chrysler's most valuable brand.

Any deal with Renault to buy Jeep would put the world's first and best-known sport utility brand back in the hands of the French automaker that sold it to Chrysler along with American Motors in 1987.

Chrysler assets under consideration for purchase by GM include its top-selling minivan line, a market segment Chrysler pioneered almost 25 years ago, and its truck production facilities in Mexico, one of the sources said.

Cerberus' talks with GM also have included the possibility of Chrysler buying GM's remaining 49 percent share of GMAC. In one scenario, GM would swap its GMAC stake for Chrysler's auto operations, sources have said.

The Wall Street Journal said that potential lenders were providing strong support for merger talks between GM and Chrysler as major banks such as JPMorgan Chase & Co are eager to cut their exposure to the auto sector.

Japanese media said that Ford was finalizing plans to sell shares in Mazda Motor Co to about 20 Japanese firms including insurers. Ford is considering selling some of its 33.4 percent stake in Mazda.

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