What: Shares of Fiat Chrysler Automobiles (NYSE:FCAU) fell 21% in January. The Italian-American automaker's stock opened at $8.91 on Jan. 4 and closed at $7.04 in the last trading session of the month, on Jan. 29.
So what: FCA was caught in a broad-based sell-off of auto stocks that also hammered the shares of most of its global peers last month. Investors are concerned about the slowing pace of auto-sales growth in the U.S., and about increasingly precarious-looking economic conditions in China. Or put simply, autos are a cyclical business, and it's starting to look like the top of the cycle.
There are reasons to be more concerned about FCA than about many of its rivals. Unlike its traditional Detroit rivals Ford and General Motors, FCA has more debt than cash on hand: Its "net industrial debt" stood at 5 billion euros as of the end of 2015. It's also much more dependent for profits on truck and SUV sales than its rivals.
And it appears to lag nearly all of its major rivals in the development of advanced technologies like battery-electric vehicles and driverless-car systems that are expected to be widely adopted over the next decade or so.
Now what: Last week, CEO Sergio Marchionne announced that FCA would discontinue U.S. production of two sedan models in order to boost its production of SUVs and trucks. That will help profits in the short term -- and Marchionne is clearly gambling that the profit boost will help fund his efforts to make the company more diversified and more competitive in time.
It's definitely a gamble: FCA is racing to boost its profitability ahead of the next major economic downturn (which is inevitable, and a fact of life in the auto business.) But it might be something of a long shot. For investors digging through beaten-up auto shares looking for bargains, I think the better bets will be found elsewhere.