How Mercedes' Futurist Predicted the Fall in Gasoline Prices, Rise of SUVs

NEW YORK (TheStreet) -- Eric Larsen, the in-house futurist for Daimler (DDAIY) -owned Mercedes, gave a presentation a year ago this month. Based on his predictions, he should either run the world's largest hedge fund or become the next U.S. Secretary of Treasury. He was absolutely right on everything he predicted about 2014.

A year ago, there were three consensus views about the broader environment for auto sales.

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  1. Gasoline prices were going to be on an upward trend, encouraging various classes of hybrid and electric cars.
  2. People were going to be flocking to "megacities" where people don't really need to own cars. They would perhaps just rent or share cars.
  3. U.S. economic growth was overshadowed by prospects for Asia, China, Brazil, Russia and India.

In his presentation, Larsen threw cold water on these relative consensus beliefs.

1. Gasoline prices are down.

The consensus belief a year ago was that there were too many risks to the world's oil supply, including eventually running out. But Eric Larsen said that we would be awash in oil and refined products sooner than not. Gasoline and diesel prices would be going down, not up.

He predicted that the dominant reason for falling fuel prices would be the North American fracking boom, which has increased the supply of oil and made us less vulnerable to Hormuz Strait blockade risk.

As a result of falling fuel prices, the demand for hybrid cars would mute in relation to the overall car market. This played out in 2014, when hybrid car sales in the U.S. declined. U.S. plug-in electric car sales are up approximately 20% in 2014, but from a smaller base than hybrids, and significantly concentrated in California -- where automakers are mandated to sell them even at a loss if necessary.

2. America is suburban, not centered around megacities.

There was plenty of fashionable talk about the world's population huddling together in extraordinarily dense "megacities." Larsen pointed out that there is some truth to this, primarily in Asia.

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However, he also pointed out that this is not the case in the U.S., where almost everyone live in suburban areas. The only "megacities" in the U.S. are Manhattan and a small area of San Francisco.

Rather, most Americans either have outdoor activities -- skiing, bicycling, hiking, camping, other sports -- or they have dogs or other four-legged friends. These kinds of lifestyles push people to buy SUVs and other large vehicles like pickup trucks.

3. The U.S. is the world's relative growth engine.

A year ago, the world's economies were driven largely by the BRICs, especially China, Russia and Brazil. The U.S. looked like a potentially suboptimal place to invest for those seeking exposure to stable economic growth.

Larsen pointed out that the relative population boom in the U.S. would help propel the U.S. economy to outperform many economies in Asia and Europe. This would boost the U.S. economy and induce people to buy more cars in the U.S. than in 2013.

Larsen was right about all of this.

Approaching the one-year anniversary of Eric Larsen's presentation and predictions, I think we can safely say that he was right and the consensus view was wrong. Why?

  1. SUV and large car sales are up.
  2. Hybrid car sales are down.
  3. Gasoline prices are down.

Mercedes hasn't been the only beneficiary from these trends in 2014. GM (GM) , Ford (F) , Fiat Chrysler (FCAU) -- and Fiat-owned Dodge, Jeep and Ram Trucks -- Fuji Heavy Industries (FUJHY) -owned Subaru, Volkswagen VLKAY-owned Audi and BMW (BAMXY) are also among 2014's major U.S. sales leaders, especially in terms of SUVs, pickup trucks or other large and premium cars.

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For example, in 2014, year-to-date Jeep sales are up 46% through October. Subaru is up 20% and Mercedes is up 7%. In contrast, Tesla's (TSLA)  unit sales are down 18%. That's for the U.S. market only.

The bottom line is this. Mercedes has an in-house futurist that appears to have predicted key macro trends important for the automotive industry for 2014. He was anti-consensus and turned out to be right.

When Larsen predicts the trends for 2015, it'll be worth listening.

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At the time of publication, the author was short TSLA.

Follow @antonwahlman

This article is commentary by an independent contributor, separate from TheStreet's regular news coverage.

TheStreet Ratings team rates TESLA MOTORS INC as a Hold with a ratings score of C-. TheStreet Ratings Team has this to say about their recommendation:

"We rate TESLA MOTORS INC (TSLA) a HOLD. The primary factors that have impacted our rating are mixed ? some indicating strength, some showing weaknesses, with little evidence to justify the expectation of either a positive or negative performance for this stock relative to most other stocks. The company's strengths can be seen in multiple areas, such as its robust revenue growth, solid stock price performance and expanding profit margins. However, as a counter to these strengths, we also find weaknesses including deteriorating net income and weak operating cash flow."

You can view the full analysis from the report here: TSLA Ratings Report

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