Volkswagen’s chief executive was under withering pressure Monday as an emissions-testing scandal erased more than 13 billion euros (around $15 billion) from the company’s market value in a single trading session.
The stock plunge followed revelations that the German carmaker had rigged U.S. emissions tests for about 500,000 diesel cars. VW CEO Martin Winterkorn apologized, acknowledging that his company had “broken the trust of our customers and the public.”
But saying sorry wasn’t enough for investors digesting the financial and reputational implications of the scandal on the world’s top-selling carmaker.
Volkswagen’s share price plunged a stunning 17.1 percent Monday, in the first trading since the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency announced the violations, reaching a near three-year low of 133.70 euros, after tumbling more than 20 percent earlier in the day.
VW has halted U.S. sales of the affected vehicles and pledged to cooperate with regulators in an investigation that could potentially lead to $18 billion in fines against the company.
This case also could test the U.S. Justice Department’s initiative, announced Sept. 9, to hold individual executives accountable for corporate wrongdoing.
The EPA warned VW that it may refer the case to Justice for enforcement, and noted that in addition to corporate fines of up to $37,500 per vehicle, individuals could be fined $3,750 per violation of the Clean Air Act, which could theoretically add up to $1.9 billion, given that half a million cars are involved.
Industry analysts said the VW CEO faces difficult questions in the coming days, particularly when the company’s board is scheduled to meet Friday.
“At the moment, I’d be surprised if Winterkorn can ride this out, but in Germany there’s often a slightly slower process in these matters,” said Christian Stadler, a professor of strategic management at Warwick Business School. If VW were a U.S. company, the CEO would have gone more or less immediately, he said.
The EPA says Volkswagen violated the federal Clean Air Act by installing “defeat devices” – software programmed to switch engines to a cleaner mode during official emissions testing. The software then switches off again, enabling cars to release as much as 40 times the legal limit of emissions during normal driving.
For a company to engage in such blatant trickery, top executives must have been informed, said Guido Reinking, a German auto expert.
Winterkorn is an engineer by training who led research and development across the VW group beginning in 2007, and became chairman of the management board the same year.
The illegal software was made and installed in vehicles with 2.0-liter diesel engines during the model years 2009 through 2015, the EPA said. They include the Audi A3, VW Jetta, Beetle, Golf and Passat models.
“It’s almost impossible to imagine that he didn’t know about this special way of programming the engine,” Reinking told German station n-tv.
Volkswagen marketed these diesel-powered cars, which account for about 25 percent of sales, as being better for the environment.
The EPA has ordered VW to fix the cars at its own expense, but said car owners do not need to take any immediate action.
Volkswagen’s woes were felt across the European car market Monday. France’s Renault SA watched its share price drop 3.2 percent, and BMW AG ended 1.5 percent lower. Daimler AG, which owns Mercedes-Benz, dropped 1.4 percent.