The State Of The Economy: Check Out The Car Industry

Includes: F, FCAU, GM, TSLA
by: John M. Mason


No US industry has benefited from government bailouts and the government's stimulus programs than the auto industry but that run may be running out of steam.

After a six-year run, retail sales seem to be plateauing and efforts are being made to "goose up" other areas, like the fleet business.

The auto industry is not the only one that is experiencing slowdowns or headwinds due to the length of the recovery, but this is just where things are.

Sometimes we need to look behind the aggregate numbers on the economy and look a little more closely at what is happening to specific companies or what is happening to particular industries.

This morning, let's take a peek at the latest figures on car sales.

"Sales for the top three auto makers selling in the US slipped in July as the strong growth rate that defined the past six years slows to a crawl-another indication the industry is entering its first sustained plateau since the decade leading to the financial crisis."

The remarkable fact mentioned in this paragraph has to do with the statement that the sales of automakers have experienced a "strong growth rate" over the past six years.

The performance of automakers has been remarkable during the economic recovery following the Great Recession.

Although the economy itself has only managed to grow at a compound rate of just 2.07 percent per year over the past seven years, the performance of car sales has been much higher throughout this time period.

The performance of the car industry is consistent with the efforts of the government to stimulate consumption expenditures within the economy through low interest rates and a wealth effect created by the Federal Reserve in the stock market.

This performance has also contributed to the fact that corporate profits in the Consumer Discretionary portion of the S&P 500 has been the most profitable area of the economy.

And "The run of sales gains in the US since 2009 has allowed most auto makers to limit reliance on discounts and keep inventories lean, padding profits generated by increased demand for trucks and sport-utility vehicles."

Still, the excellent performance of the industry, as a whole, has been truly remarkable.

Finally, however, it looks as if some weaknesses are appearing in the industry performance, raising the specter that companies will now have to start relying on pricing "gimmicks" to keep up sales in the future.

June was a disappointing month and then July showed only a 0.7 percent gain.

"Overall, retail sales are a trouble spot as purchases made by individual customers in showrooms have stalled this year, down slightly for the first seven months, according to J. D. Power."

In terms of an individual performance, Ford Motor Company (NYSE: F) showed an overall decline in sales by 3 percent, with a 6 percent decline in retail sales, which was not made up by a 6 percent in fleet sales.

General Motors Company (NYSE: GM), more dependent than Ford on retail sales, saw total sales fall by only 4 percent through the first seven months of 2016.

Two points need to be made here. The first has to do with the competition coming within the industry due to the slowdown in retail sales.

According to Mark LaNeve, Ford's US sales chief, "It's a more competitive market than we've seen in the last five or six years when we had a lot of organic growth on the retail level. It is an indication of a plateauing market that major players are going to try to protect market share."

The second point has to do with comments on where it is felt that the auto manufacturers can make up revenues from the decline in retail sales.

Bets are apparently being placed on fleet sales, sales to government agencies, sales to rental car firms, and sales to build up commercial fleets.

The bottom line is that the auto industry seems to be experiencing some "headwinds" in terms of sales volume. The retail market seems to be reaching exhaustion and is slowing down.

A six-year run is a heady experience and after all the troubles the auto sector went through during the Great Recession, has brought some stability, and possibly some sustainability, to the industry.

But, even with this relief, the future of the industry still remains uncertain given the extended period of continuous growth and given the recent slowdown in the economy.

Furthermore, there is the uncertainty pertaining to the technological future of the industry, not only in terms of the manufacturing process, but also in terms of the final product.

In terms of the future of the current economic recovery, the auto industry, one of the US industries that really benefited from the government bailout and economic stimulus programs, seems to be nearing the end of its current run. The continued evidence of this will be tepid growth in the retail side of the business, the greater push on the fleet sales, and the gimmicks the companies use to try to maintain revenues.

Disclosure: I/we have no positions in any stocks mentioned, and no plans to initiate any positions within the next 72 hours.

I wrote this article myself, and it expresses my own opinions. I am not receiving compensation for it (other than from Seeking Alpha). I have no business relationship with any company whose stock is mentioned in this article.