As automotive borrowing costs approach a 10-year high, used vehicle prices decline, the tax benefits tied to alternative fuel vehicles wane, and ongoing geopolitical risks dampen consumer demand, U.S. automakers face a tough road ahead. Overall, light vehicle sales declined about 2% in the first quarter, with higher fleet demand partially offsetting the decline in retail sales. S&P Global Ratings now expects a 3.6% decline in light vehicle sales in 2019 to 16.6 million units (revised down from 16.8 million). We expect a further decline toward 16.3 million by 2021, the lowest level since 2014.
Following the Great Recession, U.S. auto sales hit a trough of 10.4 million units in 2009 before revving up again. Sales significantly outpaced GDP growth for six consecutive years and peaked at 17.4 million units in 2016. We believe the declines in 2017 and 2018 stemmed from historically low interest rates, tax refunds, abundant incentives, and low gas prices in previous years having motivated buyers to purchase vehicles sooner than they otherwise would have.
Automotive Profitability Could Get A Bit Wobbly, But The Wheels Aren't Coming off
Overall, we don't expect the dip in auto sales to affect our automaker and supplier ratings in 2019-2020. For one, the U.S.-Mexico-Canada Trade Agreement (USMCA), once ratified, will reduce some of the uncertainty that worried the industry in 2018, though the situation concerning trade with China remains fluid. But more crucially, our forecast sales levels remain healthy enough for most automakers and suppliers to operate at historically high EBITDA margins, especially given the higher profits they earn on truck sales. And even though gas prices are rising, we believe that significant new product launches--along with better fuel efficiency and steady incentives, specifically for trucks--will support automakers' current product mix in favor of trucks, which accounted for nearly 70% of sales in the first quarter of 2019.
We incorporate modest declines in automakers' EBIT margins in our forecast for 2019 and 2020 to account for:
- Higher expected commodity prices;
- Large engineering expenses for developing autonomous and electrification-related technologies; and
- Elevated pricing pressure in several key markets, which could be partly offset by improved cost efficiencies.
Trade And Geopolitical Risks: Base-Case Scenario
The U.S.-China trade deal is not final yet. Trade talks between these nations have been evolving, with the Trump administration delaying a scheduled increase in tariffs on $200 billion of Chinese goods to 25% from 10% "until further notice."
The tariff threat could lead to reciprocal actions from Europe, Japan, and Korea. However, we currently incorporate only a limited ratings impact for Ford and General Motors because of their lower reliance on exports and higher level of localized content relative to foreign automakers. However, these tariffs will add incremental margin pressure for Tesla. After incorporating Tesla's overseas transport costs and import tariffs, the company is currently operating at a 55%-60% cost disadvantage compared with the same car produced in China.
Consistent with our base-case scenario, the U.S., Canada, and Mexico completed their renegotiation of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) in late 2018, which has been renamed the USMCA. The USMCA has yet to be signed and likely won't be until the second half of the year. Further delays in ratification increase the risk of it being hostage to electoral politics.
Once ratified, we expect the USMCA to have a modestly negative, but manageable, effect on profitability because the automakers and their suppliers will bear the costs of repositioning their supply chains. This assumes higher production costs, the preservation of manufacturing for key components in the U.S. and Canada, and an increase in wages for Mexican autoworkers. We assume that the auto industry will have adequate time to adapt its supply chain to adhere to the new rules. For example, the new country-of-origin rules for cars will likely phase-in annually through January 2023, while the rules for heavy trucks will phase-in through 2027.
Over the longer term, the changes could lead to elevated margin pressure for GM relative to Ford given GM's higher volume of truck imports from Mexico. Overall, our understanding is that Volkswagen A.G. is the most reliant on exporting vehicles from Mexico into the U.S. GM, Renault-Nissan-Mitsubishi, and Fiat Chrysler rely on Mexican exports to a lesser--but still significant--extent.
Auto-related tariffs with Europe are another immediate concern. Among U.S. automakers, Tesla faces the largest exposure, as it exports to Europe from the U.S. The impact to Ford would be very limited, and GM wouldn't be affected. (For more details, see "Trump's Tariffs Could Hurt EU Carmakers--Not The Economy," March 26, 2019.
Most Automakers Are Committed To Incentive and Inventory Discipline
We believe automakers such as GM and Ford will stay committed to cutting production as demand slows rather that boosting their sales through incentives to avoid creating excess supply. Incentive spending as a percentage of average transaction prices (ATPs) will likely remain around 10%-11% over the next few quarters. This is higher than the typical 7.5%-9.5% over the past eight years but lower than the 12% in 2017 and most of 2018. Incentive spending through March 2019 has declined (year-over-year) for seven consecutive months.
Inventory levels have remained flat year-over-year but are slightly above historical levels (10-year average of 65 days), with lower passenger car inventory offset by higher inventory for more profitable pickups.
A Stronger Product Mix Also Offers Some Relief From Sales Declines
The product mix in the U.S. remains favorable for automakers. Increasing demand for light trucks--including SUVs, CUVs (crossover utility vehicles), minivans, and pickups--will lower passenger car sales to about 30% of sales in 2019 compared with over 50% in 2012, and we expect automakers to shrink their passenger car footprints further. We also expect trucks' share to improve only marginally over the next 12-24 months.
Consistent with our earlier expectations, for the first time ever, the overall market share for crossovers (nearly 39%) surpassed that of all passenger cars combined (about 31%) in 2018. Since 2012, the crossover segment has cannibalized the combined market share of small and midsize cars (see Chart 2). Over time, high pricing pressure amid declining year-over-year demand will likely lead to some compression in profit margins for automakers, especially as competition intensifies in the high-volume segments such as CUVs.
We believe volatility in automakers' sales performances (see Table 1 and Chart 3) could persist over the next few months. This is because of the differences in product-refresh cycles among companies as well as elevated pricing pressure in the passenger car segment, which will eventually affect the crowded CUV segment.
|U.S. Auto Unit Sales And Market Share Comparison|
|--First-quarter 2018--||--First-quarter 2019--|
|Units||Share (%)||Units||Share (%)||Change (%)|
General Motors Co.
Ford Motor Co.
Toyota Motor Corp.
Fiat Chrysler Automobiles N.V
Honda Motor Co. Ltd.
Nissan Motor Co. Ltd.
Hyundai Motor Co.
|Source: Ward's AutoInfoBank.|
Competition In The Pickup Segment
Our assumption is for a modest lift for housing starts this year--to 1.3 million units from 1.2 million in 2018. The housing market in 2019-2020 will likely lead to steady demand for pick-up trucks, and we believe that competition in this segment will become fierce.
We estimate that a 6%-8% year-over-year increase in housing starts would support a 3%-5% increase in full-size pickup sales over the next 12 months (see Chart 4), holding all else constant. Despite marginal growth in the housing market, in the current low gas price environment and with new products available, we expect pick-ups to outsell most other vehicle segments and account for about 13% of total sales, slightly higher than previous years.
The significant drop in Silverado sales last quarter (see Table 2) was likely due to a lack of regular and double-cab pickups, which were scarce on dealer lots as GM rolled out new models. We will actively monitor the company's crew-cab sales, especially those with premium trims and significantly higher profits. We expect FCA to gain some share as it continues to produce its older pickup truck alongside its new offering and maintains elevated incentives.
Ford is re-entering the mid-size pick-up segment (3% of U.S. light vehicle sales) with its Ranger, and FCA is introducing its Gladiator product. We see risk to GM's profits in the segment, as its GMC Canyon and Chevrolet Colorado have about a 30% market share in the U.S., which will likely decline.
|U.S. Top-Selling Light Vehicles|
|Rank||--First-quarter 2018--||--First-quarter 2019--|
|Vehicle||Units||Vehicle||Units||Year-over-year change (%)|
|1||F Series||198,762||F Series||200,362||0.8|
|Source: Ward's Automotive Group, a division of Penton Media Inc.|
A Less-Supportive Financing Environment Adds Some Risk
Lenders are still willing to support loans of 72-84 months to attract borrowers with lower credit scores. Moreover, they're frequently offering loans that exceed the value of the vehicle. The downside risk is that it could prevent many buyers from re-entering the new-car market for several years because vehicle owners who would usually trade in for a new model could end up owing more than the car is worth. With higher vehicle prices and increased borrowing costs, average new vehicle loan payments were up 3.5% to $567 in the first quarter of 2019 compared to last year, and average lease payments are up 2.8% to $500.
From a historical perspective, total subprime auto lending hasn't returned to pre-crisis levels. Subprime loans as a percentage of all U.S. auto loans have averaged about 20% during recent quarters. This is only slightly higher than 17.2%, which is the lowest since the end of the Great Recession. Notably, captive debt is predominantly owned by prime borrowers and has performed relatively strongly. Superprime borrowers (those with credit scores greater than 760) accounted for one-third of all U.S. auto loan originations, which is the highest level since early 2011 and a significant improvement from average levels of about 22% in 2006 and 2007 (see Chart 5).
Residual Values Are Not Yet A Major Roadblock
With the record high influx of late-model vehicles coming off lease in 2019, used-vehicle prices will likely decline by about 5%-7% in 2019. Our forecasted decline would have been higher if not for demand for these vehicles remaining strong, especially as new car prices remain at all-time highs, making late-model used cars (from Model Year 2017) a good bargain. At the same time, the potential impact of higher tariffs on new vehicles could add some support to used-car prices and keep them steady, which is contrary to our base-case assumption.
Auto lease volumes are approaching peak levels and accounted for about 28% of industry sales in recent periods, though nearly 75% were to prime or superprime consumers and millennials (a segment that reported the highest increase in lease volume over the past few years). Both manufacturers and consumers will become less enthusiastic about leasing over the next couple of years as used-car prices and retention rates fall. However, we still expect lease penetration to remain above the historical average (about 20%) because these programs serve as a mechanism for building customer loyalty.
The key risk to this prediction will be subventions and subsidies, which automakers use to reduce the cost of a lease on weak-selling vehicles (usually by increasing the estimated residual value of the leased vehicle or decreasing the interest rate on the lease). In turn, this reduces the monthly payments required over the lifetime of the lease. To protect residual values, automakers have launched improved and more aggressive marketing strategies aimed at areas such as the certified preowned segment.
Electric Vehicle Sales Remain Highly Sensitive To Tax Subsidies
We expect the combined share of electric vehicles (including plug-in hybrids) to remain under 3% of overall U.S. vehicle sales in 2019 despite significantly increased sales for Tesla's Models 3, S, and X. This will lead to some market-share losses for some competitors in alternate fuel segments (see Charts 6 and 7 and Table 3). We expect there to be some downside risks to our prior base-case assumption, under which electric vehicles (including plug-ins) approach 10% of light-vehicle sales by 2025 because of ongoing customer concerns regarding range, price, and charging infrastructure. These concerns are being compounded by the lower cost of ownership for non-electric vehicles given the current low gas prices, reduced tax incentives, and the high likelihood that the Trump Administration will roll back fuel-efficiency targets in 2025.
|U.S. Top 10 Electric Vehicles/Plug-In Hybrids Market Share|
|--Fourth-quarter 2018--||--First-quarter 2019--|
|Brand||Subseries||Units sold||% share||Units sold||% share|
|Source: S&P Global Ratings.|
- U.S. GDP Growth Hits A Soft Patch--Not Quicksand, April 4, 2019
- Trump's Tariffs Could Hurt EU Carmakers--Not The Economy, March 26, 2019
- The Future Is Electric: Auto Suppliers And The Emergence Of EVs, Feb. 21, 2019
- 10-Year Retrospective: Changes In U.S. Auto ABS In The Decade Since The Great Recession, Feb. 15, 2019
- Industry Top Trends 2019: Autos, Nov. 14, 2018
This report does not constitute a rating action.
|Primary Credit Analyst:||Nishit K Madlani, New York (1) 212-438-4070;|
|Secondary Contacts:||Lawrence Orlowski, New York (1) 212-438-7800;|
|David Binns, CFA, New York;|
|Sandeep Mantri, Mumbai;|
No content (including ratings, credit-related analyses and data, valuations, model, software or other application or output therefrom) or any part thereof (Content) may be modified, reverse engineered, reproduced or distributed in any form by any means, or stored in a database or retrieval system, without the prior written permission of Standard & Poor’s Financial Services LLC or its affiliates (collectively, S&P). The Content shall not be used for any unlawful or unauthorized purposes. S&P and any third-party providers, as well as their directors, officers, shareholders, employees or agents (collectively S&P Parties) do not guarantee the accuracy, completeness, timeliness or availability of the Content. S&P Parties are not responsible for any errors or omissions (negligent or otherwise), regardless of the cause, for the results obtained from the use of the Content, or for the security or maintenance of any data input by the user. The Content is provided on an “as is” basis. S&P PARTIES DISCLAIM ANY AND ALL EXPRESS OR IMPLIED WARRANTIES, INCLUDING, BUT NOT LIMITED TO, ANY WARRANTIES OF MERCHANTABILITY OR FITNESS FOR A PARTICULAR PURPOSE OR USE, FREEDOM FROM BUGS, SOFTWARE ERRORS OR DEFECTS, THAT THE CONTENT’S FUNCTIONING WILL BE UNINTERRUPTED OR THAT THE CONTENT WILL OPERATE WITH ANY SOFTWARE OR HARDWARE CONFIGURATION. In no event shall S&P Parties be liable to any party for any direct, indirect, incidental, exemplary, compensatory, punitive, special or consequential damages, costs, expenses, legal fees, or losses (including, without limitation, lost income or lost profits and opportunity costs or losses caused by negligence) in connection with any use of the Content even if advised of the possibility of such damages.
Credit-related and other analyses, including ratings, and statements in the Content are statements of opinion as of the date they are expressed and not statements of fact. S&P’s opinions, analyses and rating acknowledgment decisions (described below) are not recommendations to purchase, hold, or sell any securities or to make any investment decisions, and do not address the suitability of any security. S&P assumes no obligation to update the Content following publication in any form or format. The Content should not be relied on and is not a substitute for the skill, judgment and experience of the user, its management, employees, advisors and/or clients when making investment and other business decisions. S&P does not act as a fiduciary or an investment advisor except where registered as such. While S&P has obtained information from sources it believes to be reliable, S&P does not perform an audit and undertakes no duty of due diligence or independent verification of any information it receives. Rating-related publications may be published for a variety of reasons that are not necessarily dependent on action by rating committees, including, but not limited to, the publication of a periodic update on a credit rating and related analyses.
To the extent that regulatory authorities allow a rating agency to acknowledge in one jurisdiction a rating issued in another jurisdiction for certain regulatory purposes, S&P reserves the right to assign, withdraw or suspend such acknowledgment at any time and in its sole discretion. S&P Parties disclaim any duty whatsoever arising out of the assignment, withdrawal or suspension of an acknowledgment as well as any liability for any damage alleged to have been suffered on account thereof.
S&P keeps certain activities of its business units separate from each other in order to preserve the independence and objectivity of their respective activities. As a result, certain business units of S&P may have information that is not available to other S&P business units. S&P has established policies and procedures to maintain the confidentiality of certain non-public information received in connection with each analytical process.
S&P may receive compensation for its ratings and certain analyses, normally from issuers or underwriters of securities or from obligors. S&P reserves the right to disseminate its opinions and analyses. S&P's public ratings and analyses are made available on its Web sites, www.standardandpoors.com (free of charge), and www.ratingsdirect.com and www.globalcreditportal.com (subscription), and may be distributed through other means, including via S&P publications and third-party redistributors. Additional information about our ratings fees is available at www.standardandpoors.com/usratingsfees.
Any Passwords/user IDs issued by S&P to users are single user-dedicated and may ONLY be used by the individual to whom they have been assigned. No sharing of passwords/user IDs and no simultaneous access via the same password/user ID is permitted. To reprint, translate, or use the data or information other than as provided herein, contact S&P Global Ratings, Client Services, 55 Water Street, New York, NY 10041; (1) 212-438-7280 or by e-mail to: email@example.com.