Larry P. Vellequette
Larry P. Vellequette
Fiat Chrysler, VW reporter

As VW exits crisis, the press spins next chapter like pirate radio

VW CEO Matthias Mueller, center, and other company executives during the company's annual news conference in Wolfsburg on Tuesday.

Photo credit: REUTERS
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WOLFSBURG -- Earlier Tuesday, I joined several hundred other reporters from around the globe at Volkswagen Group's annual press conference, where we heard CEO Matthias Mueller speak about the company's future.

And yet, when the event was over a few hours later and I was reading headlines from other media, it turns out I was wrong.

Apparently I wasn't at a press conference at all. According to some media, I had been at a Carly Rae Jepsen concert.

Hey I just met you

And this is crazy

But here's my number

So call me maybe

I'm really at a loss. You see, in the room, I heard Mueller say -- albeit through an interpreter -- that VW had no interest in overtures from Fiat Chrysler CEO Sergio Marchionne, and that VW was too preoccupied with recovering from a costly diesel scandal to even consider talking to FCA about a merger. I also heard Mueller tell the Italian journalist who asked the question that perhaps if Marchionne wanted to talk, he should call himself, instead of making indirect overtures through the media.

"It would be very helpful if Mr. Marchionne were to communicate his considerations to me too and not just to you," Mueller said a bit snippily. (Admittedly, the snarky tone I heard through a translator may not have been in the original German, but still ... )

Fair enough, I thought.

And yet, a few hours later on Twitter, I see reporters who weren't in the room tweeting things like: "VW CEO calls on Fiat Chrysler's Marchionne for direct discussions."

And: "Volkswagen CEO says not ruling out merger talks with Fiat Chrysler."

Several hours later, I questioned four other veteran American journalists who had been in the room with me, to see if they had been at a VW press conference or at a pop concert. And I double-checked with VW communications folks to make sure we all had watched the same event. To a person, none had heard Mueller express any openness to sitting down with Marchionne to discuss a tie-up with FCA.

So what gives? I'm not sure, but I have a theory.

Because its product cycles move so slowly, the auto industry can sometimes be painfully boring to cover, especially for the financial press. A midcycle refresh of a midsize crossover never earned a ringing bell on Wall Street.

But merger-and-acquisitions talk, with its endless secrecy and speculation? That's the auto industry's equivalent of pirate radio! Backroom deals, double nondenial denials -- it’s sexy and exciting, and, really, almost devoid of factual information. Even if public companies do talk to one another, they can't talk about it in public, lest it impact their stock price. For the financial press, it's the best thing going.

So, might VW be interested in FCA? Maybe someday, but I don't think that someday is now.

Besides, what makes anyone think that a merger between VW and FCA would be any less fraught with peril than the merger between Daimler and Chrysler proved to be.

I watched that movie once -- and I'll become Carly Rae's roadie before I voluntarily sit through a remake of that disaster.

You can reach Larry P. Vellequette at lvellequette@crain.com.

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