HAMBURG -- New German rules promoting soot filters on diesel-powered cars are set to hit car finance companies and dealers here by slashing the value of vehicles that don't have the technology, industry officials say.
After weeks of sometimes shrill public debate about the health impact of diesel exhaust, the federal cabinet is due next week to approve tax breaks for particle filters which capture the harmful dust that diesel motors emit.
That will in one fell swoop chop the book value of unfiltered vehicles that companies have financed or leased, and present a huge headache for dealers who are estimated to have more than 200,000 unsold and unfiltered diesels on their lots.
Such a blow would be bad news for carmakers counting on healthy profits from their finance arms to bolster earnings at a time of slack sales in Europe's biggest car market.
The government is supposed to address the proposed tax breaks on May 11. A subsidy of 250 euros ($321) is being discussed for cars retrofitted with filters, while the break for installing them on new cars is still being debated.
"It will come to model-specific adjustments for leasing rates and to value adjustments," said Alexandra Kurth-Schiffbauer, spokeswoman for Ford Financial, Germany's fourth-largest car lender.
She declined to estimate just how much prices for unfiltered cars might fall. "But we are watching the situation closely and will react by adjusting residual values if needed," she added.
Volkswagen's VW Bank would say only that the issue would not affect it alone and that financing would be agreed with individual dealers.
EXODUS TO THE EAST?
DaimlerChrysler's bank, the German sector's second biggest, expects the value of unfiltered diesels to take a hit, a spokesman said, but added it had already taken this into account in its twice-yearly calculations.
The problem was not a serious factor for premium brand Mercedes-Benz, which already sells around 80 percent of its cars with a filter in Germany.
The car banks' industry association said its members would be protected by manufacturers' obligation to buy back vehicles.
"There is no reason for car banks to revalue (unfiltered diesels) ... because they have concluded comprehensive repurchase agreements with the respective parent companies," it said.
But this would simply shift the financial burden within the group.
Estimates vary on just how much car prices will fall.
"The average used car will lose 10 percent in value," said Helmut Bluemer, spokesman for the ZDK German Association for Motor Trade and Repairs.
This is slighlty higher than an estimate from EuotaxSchwacke, which specializes in valuing used cars. It calculates, for instance, that a Mercedes C-class model with a particle filter was worth 7 percent more than the same model without a filter.
French carmakers have benefited from the debate in Germany. Schwacke found that fitting Peugeot's cars with particle filters as standard equipment had boosted their value 5 percent on average.
ZDK's Bluemer played down the issue as "not a problem".
"Very old cars that are not worth retrofitting with filters will go to other markets, to the East," he said, likening this to the emigration of cars without catalytic converters in the 1980s.