The major automakers will report November sales next week. The expectation is that the pace for 2014 will remain brisk.
By the time we wrap up the year, the U.S. auto industry should have sold between 16 and 17 million new cars and trucks.
There are naysayers who think this sales pace is unsustainable. They point mainly to the credit markets, where automakers’ finance arms and banks have expanded subprime lending.
It’s a bubble! It’s all going to collapse!
Except that it probably isn’t.
Easy credit is worth keeping an eye on. But for the time being, it doesn’t seem especially troubling.
There are two other major drivers of sales: average vehicle age; and improving household budgets.
The first of these is straightforward. The average age of a vehicle on U.S. roads is 11 years. That’s ridiculous. Americans don’t drive old cars. It took a complete meltdown of the global financial system and the worst crisis since the Great Depression to change a decades-old pattern for U.S. carbuyers.
The second is now beginning to assert itself in the auto market. As the unemployment rate has fallen, hiring has slowly picked up, and households have shed debt.
In a research note published Friday, Sterne Agee analysts Michael Ward highlighted this trend:
Recent economic data continues to point to a modest but steady recovery in the U.S. demand cycle. Spending on new and used vehicles has been below the historical average every month since August 2005. In the period ending October, personal consumption spending on new and used vehicles as well as leasing totaled 3.2% of disposable income compared with an average of 4.1% since 1980.
That’s a striking figure. Transportation for most households is right up there with shelter and food, so to be below trend by a full percentage point, and to have been below trend for a decade, is just one of those things that is going to correct — and is in fact correcting now.
Observers of the economy who want to make a case for an impending downturn have for what amounts to a few years been attacking resurgent auto sales as a harbinger of bad news that’s just over the horizon.
It reminds me of all the folks who were insisting that U.S. government borrowing after the financial crisis was going to bring on the bond vigilantes at some point and generate higher inflation.
The people complaining about resurgent auto sales seem to actually want households to be needlessly austere in dealing with the transportation needs. I won’t get into the whole issue of how if you have a job you need to get to that job, and for the vast majority of Americans, the getting there happens in a car.
There’s also a subset of auto industry observers who would like the auto industry to go away, replaced by car sharing and various forms of mass transit. Over the very long term, they could be on to something; Silicon Valley ideas about self-driving cars and advanced mobility solutions are looking much more predictive than speculative.
But for the next few decades, personal auto ownership is likely to expand rather than contract, especially as emerging markets such as China realise their potential.
The bottom line is that the auto industry in the U.S. is a the best shape it’s been in since before the financial crisis. The industry is cyclical, so the good times can’t last forever. But meaningful trends in the economy are currently supporting an ongoing recovery that has room to run.
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