Who was VW’s Poetsch really talking about?

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A mini-tempest has blown up among European automakers over remarks by a Volkswagen executive.

As reported by various news accounts, VW CFO Hans Dieter Poetsch said some European competitors are at risk of going out of business without financial assistance as the region’s auto market sinks.

“It is unclear if all carmakers will survive without governmental help,” Poetsch said on the eve of the Paris auto show on Wednesday. “Carmakers in southern Europe that produce small cars will be especially affected.”

Who might those endangered companies be?

“The two guys with the most stretched balance sheets are clearly Fiat and Peugeot,” Credit Suisse analyst Erich Hauser said.

Fiat and Peugeot are, as the Brits say, taking umbrage with Poetsch’s painting a bull’s-eye on their backs.

And the comments further exacerbated the already-festering relationship between Fiat CEO Sergio Marchionne and VW’s top brass over a variety of political and business issues in the troubled European economic environment.

An angry Marchionne today even invited VW’s top brass to a morning showdown on Friday at Fiat’s display at the Paris auto show.

But the real question is not whether those two companies are at risk.

Poetsch has only an outsider’s understanding of the financials at Fiat and Peugeot. But he has an insider’s knowledge of the financials at another southern European car company that makes small cars: VW’s own Seat.

Is Poetsch hinting at troubles in Seat’s future? Is there something he’s not saying -- yet?

Or maybe he just wanted to taunt Marchionne, which seems to be a favored pastime at VW.

Perhaps we’ll find out more tomorrow.

You can reach James B. Treece at jtreece@crain.com.

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