Just 2 days ago certain commentators incorrectly reported a 25% sales jump
Too many cars, and they’re not on the road
After ‘car bubble’ collapses, excess inventory creates a backlog
WASHINGTON – The sea of new cars, 57,000 of them, stretches for acres along the Port of Baltimore. They are imports just in from foreign shores and exports waiting to ship out — Chryslers and Subarus, Fords and Hyundais, Mercedeses and Kias. But the customers who once bought them by the millions have largely vanished, and so the cars continue to pile up, so many that some are now stored at nearby Baltimore-Washington International Marshall Airport.
The backlog exists because many of the factors that contributed to the collapse of the housing bubble — cheap credit, easy financing, excessive production, consumers buying more than they could afford — undermined another large and vital American industry.
“There was a car bubble,” Steven Rattner, who President Obama recruited to head a Treasury Department group charged with finding solutions to the mountain of problems facing the American auto industry, said in an interview last month. “We had this artificially high sales rate.”
During the boom years of the early and mid-2000s, automakers were selling more than 16 million cars a year in the United States. They are on pace to sell fewer than 10 million this year. General Motors posted a 44.5 percent drop in March compared with the same month a year ago. Ford’s sales tumbled 41.3 percent. Chrysler’s fell 39.3 percent. Toyota’s sales fell 39 percent, and Honda’s dropped 36.3 percent.
One of the key questions the auto task force must answer is figuring out a sustainable number of annual auto sales. Only then can it determine the best way forward for U.S. automakers. “You had a huge number of cars being sold,” Rattner said, “so I don’t think it is prudent to assume the sale levels are going to back to those levels.”
Confidence and easy cash
What drove sales so high in the first place?
In short, the same confluence of confidence and easy cash that fueled the housing boom.
“Consumers felt good about their future,” said Mark Pregmon, a SunTrust Bank executive and chairman of the automotive finance committee of the Consumer Bankers Association. “It was riding the wave of the ‘go’ economy. Stocks were rising. Equity in houses was rising. People felt they could just borrow off their house. Their house was their ATM machine.”
Car companies did their part to entice consumers.
“Loose credit, incentives, leasing — it really kind of fed the beast,” said Jeff Schuster, executive director of forecasting for J.D. Power and Associates. “That made many cars that might have been out of reach affordable.”
In turn, Americans bought more cars and bought them more frequently. They spent more money than they could afford, thanks to loans that stretched six years or longer, even for buyers with shaky credit. Rental car companies and municipalities turned over their vehicle fleets more often. And the automakers kept churning out cars to meet the very demand they had helped create.
“You keep doing what you’re doing, and you just keep assuming that growth is going to go on forever. And then at some point it just drops out from under you,” said Alan Pisarski, a transportation expert and author of “Commuting in America.” He compared the years of overproduction to putting a Burger King on every street corner. “The world just can’t use that many hamburgers,” he said.
When the bottom finally fell out, many people found themselves with loans worth more than the cars, just as millions of Americans owe more on their mortgages than their homes are worth.
“People were taking all kinds of risks buying cars beyond their means,” said John Townsend, a spokesman for AAA Mid-Atlantic. “The cars that they drive are not worth what they owe on the car.”
The result has been an increase in the repossession rate for autos, he said, as well as higher delinquency rates on car loans and fewer people venturing onto the nation’s car lots.
“The uncertainty in the economy is causing consumers to postpone making big-ticket purchases,” said Jesse Toprak, an analyst with Edmunds.com. “Cars are the second-most expensive purchase a consumer can make after their homes. We are seeing consumers holding on to cars longer than in the past. The average used to be 4 1/2 years, and now is probably going to go over six years.”
In addition, many auto repair shops and do-it-yourself retailers such as AutoZone have seen a boost in business as the GMs and Chryslers of the world have suffered.
“The big question is, how do you jump-start auto sales again? Or can you?” Townsend said.
The big automakers are certainly trying.
GM and Ford have announced programs that assist buyers with up to nine months of car payments if they lose their job. Car loans in many markets are becoming easier to get, though most buyers have to show that they are employed and earn enough to cover both a mortgage and a car payment. GM announced this week that it would lend to buyers who had credit scores below 620, which is considered a high-risk, subprime consumer market. A few months ago, the credit score threshold was 700.
[Isn’t that how we got here – making loans to people who could not pay them back – The same thing is happening in the Mortgage Market. The Sub-prime market is opening again]
GMAC, the financing arm of GM, has taken steps to reduce the cash crunch many dealers face by temporarily waiving some dealer fees, eliminating loan payments on aging unsold cars and postponing wholesale interest charges. It also announced that it would make $5 billion available over the next two months to expand lending to potential car buyers. [$5 Billion of taxpayer money to expand risky auto loan programs]
Employment is key
Most analysts agree that the auto market will probably not rebound until people feel more secure in their jobs. As with housing, an intrinsic link exists between the health of the economy and the health of the auto industry.
“There’s a tremendous correlation between people who work and own automobiles,” Pisarski said. “If you look at where the cars are, that’s where the workers are. If employment doesn’t grow, car ownership doesn’t grow.”
The shaky economy has kept consumers at bay. Nine hundred car dealers closed in 2008. The National Automobile Dealers Association calculates that another 1,200 will shutter this year.
While it lasted, the car bubble effectively masked significant structural problems at GM, Ford and Chrysler, as well as at foreign automakers like Toyota, which ramped up production in the United States in recent years but suddenly found itself burdened with inventory it couldn’t sell.
The bursting of the bubble has exposed the precarious nature of the industry and made clear that bankruptcy might be the most feasible option for U.S. carmakers.
In the meantime, new cars nobody wants to buy continue to pile up in Baltimore and at ports around the globe. Last month, when space filled up at one Swedish port, Toyota was forced to lease a cargo ship as a sort of floating parking garage for 2,500 unsold cars.