The auto boom, one of the key components propping up consumer spending, has come to an end. Dealers are wildly overweight SUVs just as the market turned.
As auto-industry growth stalls and family sedans go the way of the flip phone, one silver lining had been the trusty “crossover” SUV. Sales in the category boomed amid lower gasoline prices and higher demand for spacious wagons with all-wheel drive.
But more clouds seem to be gathering as the summer car-selling season comes to an end. Incentives on SUVs are skyrocketing amid rising inventories, a trend that promises to dent the fat profits the segment has long returned.
Auto makers report sales on Friday, and August volume is expected to rise 2% compared with the same month in 2016, but only because dealers have an extra selling day this year. On an adjusted basis, the rate of retail sales—stripping out deliveries to fleet buyers—will hit the lowest point of 2017, according to J.D. Power, despite hefty sales incentives and new model offerings.
The U.S. auto market’s slowdown isn’t a new story, as analysts widely expected a seven-year growth streak to end and for sales to plateau at roughly 17 million a year for the foreseeable future. Red flags for the crossover market, however, represent a whole new set of headaches, particularly for companies like General Motors Co.
“The industry is wildly overweight on crossovers,” John Murphy, an auto analyst for Bank of America Merrill Lynch, said in a recent presentation. The number of crossover models sold in U.S. dealerships is expected to rise to 110 nameplates by late 2020, up from 78 today, he estimated.
Auto makers like GM—long dominant in the SUV market—have relied on bigger or heavier vehicles with higher price tags to drive profits, and offset the losses that result from sales of family sedans or compact cars. But in the first half of 2017, incentives for SUVs shot up 33%, according to research website Edmunds.com, with the average discount or rebate in the segment reaching $3,200.
Ford Motor Co. is currently offering a $3,500 cash rebate on the Ford Escape, along with 0% financing for 72 months. A Ford spokesman said the SUV market is “increasingly competitive,” noting average transaction prices last month fell $400 compared to a year earlier.
Economists Expect Plateau
At every peak, economists expect a “plateau”, be it the stock market, the housing market, or cars.
Reasons to Expect a Crash
- Self-driving features are on the way and many people will wait for them
- Lots of retiring boomers purchased their last car
- Anyone who bought with long-term financing in the past few years is deeply underwater, making trade-ins difficult
- Auto sales are increasingly subprime
- After years of record sales, who needs a newer car away?
Vehicles account for 20% of retail spending. A crash or even a significant slowdown will impact retail sales and thus GDP.
Mike “Mish” Shedlock