Updated from 9:23 a.m. EST
Are the automakers looking through tinted glasses?
January auto sales were the lowest since 1963, but
are trying to look at the bright side.
They say sales have bottomed -- particularly higher-margin retail sales, as opposed to fleet sales to rental car companies. Their market shares are higher, in the case of Ford, or steady, in the case of GM. On Thursday, shares of Ford closed down 2 cents to $1.93, while GM shares finished up 10 cents to $2.82.
The Obama administration's stimulus package could boost sales and credit availability, an urgent concern for auto-buyers. Used-car prices are higher, a positive sign. Pent-up demand is building. And some recent economic indicators provided hopeful signs.
Not everyone shares the optimism about sales.
, the other member of the Detroit Three, says sales could remain at January levels all year. Shares of Ford and GM were flat Tuesday, as all three automakers unveiled January sales figures as well as projections, and turned down on Wednesday.
Also, it is worth noting that executives at
, a proxy for the economy, said Wednesday that nothing they see leads them to have any hope for an economic recovery this year.
Still, it never helps to assume the worst. Here are eight positive signs, based on the automakers' sales calls Wednesday.
Pent-up demand is "incredible," said General Motors marketing chief Mark LaNeve. GM projects 2009 domestic sales of 10.5 million to 12 million, yet normal annual demand is 12.5 million. Additionally, he said 2 million drivers enter the auto market each year, and "we're not even counting them."
Used-car prices are stabilizing. With auction prices stable, "dealers will take a stretch on a trade" because they won't fear getting stuck with a trade-in they cannot sell, said Ford sales chief Ken Czubay.
The market is stabilizing. Ford analyst George Pipas said retail sales have held steady at around 8.3 million over the past four months, even though incentives were about $300 less per vehicle in January. "You have to stop falling before you can start rising," said Ford economist Emily Kolinski Morris.
The overall sales drop from January to December was driven by a decline in fleet sales, which are lower-margin items. Fleet sales dropped 81% at Chrysler, 80% at GM, and 65% at Ford, driven by production cuts as well as reduced demand from rental-car companies and businesses that buy fleets.
Ford and GM say they will benefit when fleet sales return to a normal level. "We like it at the profitability level we're at now," said LaNeve. But Chrysler said reduced fleet sales are generally a positive. "There is no reason for us for vanity to impress everybody with big numbers and big sales," said Chrysler President Jim Press. Additionally, fleet operators' used-car sales depress the residual value of cars sold at retail.
Ford's market share was 12.7%, up 0.3%, and showed its fourth consecutive monthly increase. GM's market share is holding steady around 21%, "despite all the stuff we've been through," LaNeve said. He added that Ford's increase is not all that significant since it follows down periods in 2006 and 2007. "Their year-over-year comparisons (had) much lower hurdles than ours," he said.
Some recent economic indicators are up. The index of pending home sales rose 6.3% in December, said GM analyst Mike DiGiovanni, adding: "We might finally be getting some traction to cure the glut of homes in the market." Ford's Kolinski Morris said the purchasing managers index rose slightly in January, as did the University of Michigan index of consumer sentiment. "All indicators remain at distressed levels," she said. "(But) there are some feint signals emerging that we may be nearing the bottom.
The Obama administration's financial stimulus package is expected to help in two critical areas: increased bank lending and reduced home foreclosures.
More bank lending is needed because "our biz is based on credit, more than any other industry," said DiGiovanni. Fewer foreclosures help because that would halt home-price declines, which make homeowners "feel like their wealth has declined, and they stop spending on big-ticket items," said LaNeve.
The federal government is clearly willing to help. The Bush administration, in its closing days, used money from the Troubled Asset Relief Program to purchase $5 billion in GMAC and made a $1.5 billion loan to Chrysler Financial. On Wednesday, the Senate voted to make interest and sales taxes on vehicle purchases income tax-deductible. More infrastructure spending would boost construction, which could boost truck sales, DiGiovanni noted.
Inventories are declining, which should help to support pricing. Over the past year, Ford's inventory fell by 27%, Chrysler's by 13% and GM's by 11%.