A few weeks ago, I saw an article that painted a not-so-rosy outlook for the automotive industry. Some analysts downgraded their forecast for annual sales by about 500,000 units. On an emotional level, I understand why some people had a negative reaction. After all, a 500,000-unit drop sounds gut-wrenching.
But, I tend to look past the emotion and focus on the facts. The main thing that I am seeing is an industry on the rise. Sales in 2009 bottomed out at 10.4 million. Since then, sales have climbed steadily each year and are still likely to top 14 million this year.
As I look at the horizon, based on the intelligence we provide to our clients throughout the industry, I see several signs that point to a positive future.
Pickup trucks pick up sales
Pickup truck sales provide an interesting barometer of economic health for two reasons. One, they are often an investment made by contractors who need them for work. When work picks up, contractors make purchases. Two, pickup trucks are going upscale. People who need to pull boats, Jet Skis and campers for recreational needs also buy when times are good.
By both of these measures, pickup truck sales have a bright future. The Ford F-Series pickup truck and the Chevy Silverado were two of the top three selling vehicles in May, even as gas prices hovered around $3.90 a gallon. The Ford F-Series was the top-selling model, with 54,836 units sold, up 29.3 percent over a year ago. The Chevy Silverado had 34,555 units sold, up 21.6 percent. Ford says that 30 percent of its F-150 sales are for high-end trim packages that start at $35,000, showing that upscale customers are helping to drive pickup truck demand.
Gas prices predicted to fall
Even with gas hovering just shy of $4 per gallon for 2012, sales still are growing overall. In addition, as mentioned above, pickup truck sales were still strong even with higher gas prices.
There is always a run on small vehicles when gas prices spike. However, as soon as gas prices begin to go down, sales of larger vehicles tend to bounce back. Right now, we are seeing several reports that gas could drop as far as $3 per gallon this fall. Given the already-strong demand for pickup trucks, it is likely that a drop in gas prices will help this segment surge even more. That will be good for manufacturers and dealers alike, as these vehicles generally are among the most profitable.
Credit obtainable, consumers making timely payments
Credit, or lack thereof, was a huge part of the 2008 industry collapse. As the industry has clawed its way back to higher sales, the strength of the credit market has rebounded as well. In the first quarter of 2012, outstanding loan balances were up overall compared with the first quarter of 2011. In addition, outstanding loan balances were up for all types of lending organizations, including banks, captive finance arms, finance companies and credit unions. Consumers are doing their part, as well, as delinquencies are down and the amount of loan balances at risk is low.
As consumer payment performance has improved, it has generated several positive outcomes. Lenders are giving consumers longer loan terms, lower interest rates and larger loan amounts. In addition, the average credit score for both new and used vehicle loans has dropped. In the first quarter of 2012, the average credit score for financing a new vehicle dropped six points to 760 and dropped four points to 659 for used vehicles compared with the previous year.
A reduction in average credit scores, lower interest rates and a lengthening of loan terms are all very good signs for the market and offer great opportunities for consumers looking to make a deal on a new or used vehicle.
What will it take to maintain the momentum?
Unemployment and consumer confidence will continue to be important barometers to help predict the sustainability of the automotive recovery. As of this writing, unemployment still hovered above 8% and consumer confidence seemed to be wavering.
However, given the many good signs we see in the industry today, I’m going to keep the glass-half-full outlook. Profitable vehicles are seeing strong sales, companies have been reorganized to be more efficient, gas prices are predicted to fall, and credit is easier to find. We might still hit a few bumps in the road, but overall, the industry seems well-positioned to continue its steady climb.