'Peak auto' is a zombie idea that has taken over the US auto market

The walking dead zombiesGene Page/AMCNot cars. Zombies!

Morgan Stanley lead auto analysts Adam Jonas published a research note on Wednesday in which he argued that “peak auto” — the idea that the US car sales market has plateaued — is a “stigma” that the industry can’t shake.

“An 18.3-million light-vehicle sales pace for October beat consensus estimates of 17.7 million,” he wrote, citing sales data that was reported on Monday.

“‘Peak auto’ concerns will likely reach new highs and rest of year would need to average 18.3 million in order to attain our FY forecast of 17.6 million SAAR.”

An 18-million plus pace isn’t out of the question for the final two months of the year, particularly given that General Motors, Ford, and Fiat Chrysler Automobiles all have about three months inventory on dealer lots now and could up incentives through December to clear out the supply. Especially given that a lot of what’s currently in dealer channels is pickup trucks.

However, Business Insider spoke with executives from Ford and GM when they reported their third-quarter earnings in October and both stressed that incentives as a whole in the US market are moderating. So we’ll have to see how the year pans out.

“Peak Auto” is one of those theories about what’s going in with US car and truck sales that sounds cool — it evokes the “peak oil” theory, which suggests that all the productive reserves of crude oil in the world have been found and it’s all downhill from here.

The analogy isn’t actually bogus: peak auto suggests that the pent-up demand that was created in the US auto market is getting worked out — and that a slow sales decline is inevitable.

But it isn’t really clear what that would mean for the health of the automakers selling cars in the US. Sales declines would have some affect, but if your mix of vehicles is profitable, it should all be fine and dandy unless the market crashes below a 13 million to 14-million sales pace.

As it turns out, the vehicles that automakers are selling a lot of right now — pickups and SUVs, of all sizes — are quite profitable.

US Auto Sales GraphicBusiness InsiderIt’s been a good run.

Peaks are inevitable — and that’s not a bad thing

It would also be strange to assume that the US auto market, which broke a sales record last year that had stood for a decade and a half, has an excessive amount of untapped potential. Simply replacing worn-out vehicles assures a sales pace of 14 million to 15 million annually, so anything above that it gravy. But unless the US population grows big time or cars become much less reliable, there isn’t really that much gravy to be had.

The real problem with talking about a peak-auto “problem” is that, even as automakers pile up cash, automaker stocks are pricing in a downturn — a downturn that wouldn’t weight very heavily on profits unless is was the result of a sharp and deep recession.

That said, with GM trading at $30, Ford at $11, and FCA at $7, the downside risk is being absorbed by those automakers’ current management — management that has steered all three car companies to record US sales and many consecutive profitable quarters. Ford and FCA investors in particular don’t want to see shares lose a third of their values or more and could be using peak auto as an excuse for sharpening the knives.

Dropping the peak-auto chatter, now that it’s been proven wrong by sales, would go a long way toward avoiding that gruesome outcome.

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