The major automakers reported US sales on Tuesday, and most missed on expectations.
This has led to a predictable round of lamentations about the condition of the US car market, which for several years now has been on a tear and can rightly be credited with helping lead the country robustly out of the Great Recession.
The focus is on whether the market is now plateauing, which if true would signal that the automakers could revert to previous patterns of what observers consider bad behaviour, mainly increased spending on incentives to hold or gain market share in a no-growth situation.
That analysis overlooks a critical factor, however: If sales are plateauing, they’re plateauing at an historically high level.
June sales were a bit weak, setting a sales pace of around 16.5 million; the market had gotten accustomed to 17-million plus, and in 2015 saw a few months when the pace moved above 18 million.
I was worried that July would be another sub-17-million month, but it wasn’t: it came in at nearly 18 million, despite the misses from Ford, General Motors, and Fiat Chrysler Automobiles (none missed by a huge margin). The only real sales loser was Volkswagen, which once again saw sales plunge — over 8% in July — as it continues to grapple with the Dieselgate repercussions.
It’s all about mix
With the sales pace that high, market share and incentive spending matter less than the mix of vehicles an automaker is selling. For example, you don’t necessarily want to be moving small sedans when the market is that strong because although it’s great to sell more cars, it isn’t great to sell lots of cars at a slim margin.
You’d rather be selling more profitable pickup trucks and SUVs.
As it happens, those are precisely the vehicles that GM, Ford, and FCA are selling plenty of at the moment. FCA, in fact, just announced that it will stop building passengers cars altogether in the US, so that it can focus on Jeeps and Ram pickups.
The conditions now are ideal for a continuing SUV boom: cheap gas, easy credit, low unemployment. And as long as that segment is supported by the economy, in a 17-million-sales-pace environment, the automakers can post flat numbers until the next downturn comes and have absolutely nothing to worry about.
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