Daimler CEO warns of rising emerging market risks

By Knut Engelmann and Hendrik Sackmann

NEW YORK/STUTTGART (Reuters) - Germany's Daimler <DAIGn.DE> warned of growing economic risks in emerging markets such as China that could cause the auto industry's growth engine to sputter.

"There are some clouds on the blue sky," Dieter Zetsche told journalists in New York on Tuesday.

Emerging markets have generated almost three-quarters of world growth over the past two years, but there is rising concern that inflation in China -- the world's No. 2 economy -- could prompt a slowdown in emerging markets across the board.

Zetsche told Reuters Insider that a number of "difficult events" over recent months -- including the earthquake in Japan, unrest across the Arab world, and still-anemic growth in the United States -- meant that the risks to global growth had increased.

"I would see a very small likelihood for a storm coming. It's not impossible...but our main and most likely scenario is a continuation of the positive development of the world economy," he said in an interview.

China's consumer inflation hit a 34-month high of 5.5 percent in the year to May. Analysts forecast it would peak in June or July before easing.

Premium and mass-market carmakers have looked to fast-growing markets like China to make up for sluggish sales growth in more mature markets, particularly in Europe.

Daimler, which makes Mercedes-Benz and Smart cars, sold 82 percent more cars in China in the first three months of 2011 than in the year-earlier period.

But that growth rate slowed to 43 percent in May, dragging monthly total group sales growth to a single-digit percentage from more than 10 percent over the first four months of the year.

But Zetsche said Daimler's business was diverse enough -- with operations in North America and Europe as well as emerging markets selling cars, trucks, vans and buses -- to balance volatility in emerging markets.

His comments come as Daimler unveiled its revamped flagship truck Actros. It hopes this will improve profitability at its trucks business, which generated 45 percent of group revenue in the first quarter, to take on top rival Volvo <DAIGn.DE>.

"We are investing a total of more than 2 billion euros ($2.87 billion) in development and production of the new Mercedes-Benz Actros," Daimler Trucks chief Andreas Renschler told Reuters in an interview earlier on Tuesday.

The division sells Mercedes-Benz trucks in Europe and Latin America, Freightliner and Western Star trucks in North America and Fuso trucks in Asia.

Daimler also has been eager to expand into higher margin industrial diesel engines and has teamed up with Rolls Royce <RR.L> to bid for German engine maker Tognum <TGMG.DE>. Zetsche said some 85 percent of Tognum's shareholders had pledged their shares by the close of the joint tender offer on Monday.

"Obviously our offer was ending just yesterday, it was very successful," Zetsche said. "We're at about 85 percent ownership now. We are very satisfied with this development."

Daimler is due to announce the final acceptance quota on Friday.

With their offer for Tognum, which makes military and ship engines, Daimler and Rolls Royce hope to tap into a global growth market worth more than $40 billion a year that offers better margins than the autos sector.

The deal will allow Daimler, which owned Tognum until selling the unit in 2005, to tighten its grip on a major buyer of its truck diesel engines, which are retooled by Tognum for specialized uses.

Daimler shares closed up 2.1 percent at 48.56 euros, underperforming a 2.23 percent rise in the European automakers index <.SXAP>.

(Writing by Maria Sheahan and Knut Engelmann, editing by Jane Merriman, David Hulmes, Bernard Orr and Carol Bishopric)