What Next as Car Sales Collapse?

August 4, 2008

Reporting on the auto industry can be a bit difficult, these days, certainly if you're hoping to find something good to say. And the latest news is no exception.

Wrapping up the second quarter, General Motors announced a whopping $15.5 billion loss, the third-worst in its history, and nearly double the record loss reported by Ford Motor Co. barely a week before. Chrysler did announce it had found a way to set aside $1.1 billion during the first half of 2008, but that's about the only thing good the automotive arm of Cerberus Capital Management seems to have to talk about these days.

And to make sure prospects don't look any better for the months to come, industry sales numbers showed that the market is, if anything, getting worse, with automakers large and small collectively reporting what would, on an annualized basis, come in at barely 13 million cars, trucks, and crossovers. That's down from an industry peak earlier in the decade of more than 17 million.

Chrysler, in fact, posted the worst downturn of any of the major makers, a 28.8 percent decline for July, with GM close behind, at a 26.1 downturn. Ford was off 14.7 percent, but there was something positive to note there, with the ailing makers passenger car sales actually rising by 1.9 percent. The big downturn - no surprise - across the industry is on the light truck side, where even Toyota reported a 27.1 percent drop, compared to year-earlier sales of vehicles like the Tundra pickup and Land Cruiser SUV.

But even Honda, which has seemingly defied gravity in recent months, proved that Newton was right. The Japanese maker reported an overall 1.6 percent decline.

The one positive surprise? Nissan delivering an overall 8.5 percent increase in July sales, despite its continuing decline on the light truck side. High-mileage small cars, such as the Versa, have helped the Japanese marque gain traction.

And that's what analysts are hoping can put a bit of momentum back into the industry, as makers race to expand production of products like Versa, Honda's Fit, and Toyota's Yaris. But even though domestic manufacturers are shutting truck plants as quickly as possible and converting many to handle small passenger cars, the changeover won't be easy - or quick. The first American version of Ford's new Fiesta, for example, won't roll out a former F-Series plant in Mexico until the 2010 model year.

A slight reprieve in fuel prices could help August's numbers, some analysts believe. But few expect a resurgence in the truck market. And the overall slump in the U.S. economy, with surveys showing consumers expecting even worse, isn't going to help the auto industry.

Indeed, the lending crisis is actually worsening things for the auto industry. Automotive finance subsidiaries and traditional lenders alike are tightening credit and, in many cases, curbing or eliminating entirely the leasing programs that, in recent years, helped get millions of motorists out of used vehicles and into new ones.

"I'm really worried about keeping my doors open," one Detroit-area Lincoln Mercury dealer told me last week. About 80 percent of his business is leasing, noted the retailer, who asked not to be named. And if he can't offer those low-cost deals anymore, he doesn't expect to convert many of his struggling blue-collar customers to a traditional sale.

The leasing cutback could be felt across the industry. For most luxury marques, leasing accounts for 70-plus percent of their business. Yes, makers like Lexus and Mercedes-Benz have more affluent customers, but many of those are also stretching their budgets to stay in the luxury market. If makers are forced to retune leases to reflect financial realities, some products could see huge price jumps. And that could lead many potential customers - especially those coming back for new leases - to walk away.

There's clearly light at the end of the tunnel. But right now, nobody's quite sure when they're going to get near enough to the end of this downturn to see it.

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