#Carmageddon Not Yet, But Hot Air Hisses out of Auto Bubble

Despite record incentives, sales decline speeds up, inventory bloat spreads to zombie malls.

Most industry gurus were once again too optimistic with their dreary forecasts for new vehicle sales in the US. Kelley Blue Book had figured they’d drop 3.1% in April year-over-year to 1.45 million units. Forecasts in terms of the seasonally-adjusted annual rate of sales – a key industry metric – ranged from 16.9 million SAAR at Baum & Associates and at Goldman Sachs to 17.5 million SAAR at LMC Automotive. The analyst average forecast was 17.1 million SAAR, down 0.35% year-over-year.

But customers were under sticker shock, and were hobbled by other issues, and what the industry produced was this:

  • Total sales in April fell 4.7% year-over-year to 1.426 million vehicles, according to Autodata; cars sales plunged 11.1% and even truck sales edged down 0.1%.
  • Year-to-date sales, at 5.49 million vehicles, are now down 2.4%. At this rate, this will pan out to be the dreaded “car recession.”
  • Sales in terms of SAAR fell 3% year-over-year to 16.88 million. The pessimists among the forecasters were almost there.

So April had one fewer selling day than April 2016, but this didn’t come as a surprise to forecasters. And SAAR accounts for it.

Note: These are unit sales (deliveries) by franchised dealers to their customers, and by manufacturers to large fleets and to their own employees under their employee programs.

A 4.7% drop in sales, bad as it is, wouldn’t qualify for #carmageddon. These things happen. But here’s the thing: Automakers had shelled out $3,465 in incentives per new vehicle sold, on average, according to TrueCar estimates. A record for the month of April. It beat the prior record of $3,393, set in April 2009. It amounts to about 10% of suggested retail price, similar to March. The last period when incentive spending was at this level of MSRP was in 2009 as the industry and sales were collapsing.

The #carrmageddon point to watch: despite the 13.4% year-over-year surge in incentive spending to nearly $5 billion, total vehicle sales fell 4.7%! When these massive incentives fail to even slow the sales decline, serious problems lurk beneath the surface.

This table shows the largest automakers, their year-over-year sales performance – the sea of red ink – along with average per-unit incentive spending and total incentive spending:

GM shelled out the most incentives on average per vehicle, in total $1.23 billion. In March, it had spent about $1.3 billion. At this rate, GM is spending just under $4 billion per quarter in incentives. By comparison, in its Q1 earnings, GM reported “North America” revenue of $29.3 billion. At this rate, it is spending about 13% of its North American revenues on US incentives.

But it’s just not working out. Total sales dropped nearly 5.9%, to 244,200 units, with car sales plunging 12.5% and even truck sales falling 3.2%. A gruesome detail: Silverado-C/K pickup sales plunged 20% to 40,154 units. Total retail sales (not including fleet sales) fell 4% to 191,911 vehicles. GM ended the month with 100 days’ supply, up from the nail-biter level of 98 days at the end of March.

GM Chief Economist Mustafa Mohatarem tried to put a positive spin on the situation:

“When you look at the broader economy, including a strong job market, rising wages, low inflation and low interest rates, and couple them to low fuel prices and strong consumer confidence, you have everything you need for auto sales to weather headwinds and remain at or near historic highs.”

Ford sales dropped 7.1% to 214,695 vehicles in April year-over-year, with car sales plunging 21.2% and even truck sales falling 1.7%. While SUV sales inched up 1%, pickup sales dropped 4%. To accomplish this, Ford blew $800 million on incentives.

And bloated inventories are hounding the automakers. According to WardsAuto.com, there were over 4 million new vehicles sitting on dealer lots and increasingly on rented parking lots at zombie retail malls. April was the fourth month in a row with dealer inventories above 4 million. The last time this happened was in 2004!

The situation of ballooning inventories, massive incentives, and falling sales is confronting automakers with tough decisions – and there are no good options: pile on even more incentives, only to see sales decline further and gut profits, which is what happened leading up to the collapse of the industry during the Great Recession; and/or cut production and deal with the fallout; or cut incentives, fasten the seatbelts, and hang on.

Consumers are now getting accustomed to these incentives, some of them reaching $8,000 or more per vehicle. Without them, consumers would just say no. Incentives are addictive. You cannot just withhold that drug. It would crush sales. That’s why it is so difficult for automakers to get off incentives once they got on them in a big way.

A number of automakers didn’t make the above list because their market share is too small, including Volvo, Mazda, Porsche, Jaguar, Ferrari, Maserati, and Tesla.

Tesla sold 3,850 car in April, according to Autodata, 44% fewer than Porsche, giving it a market share of about a quarter of a percent (0.27%), compared to GM’s 244,200 units and market share of 17.2%. Yet today, Tesla shares give it a market cap of $52 billion, compared to GM’s $50 billion. That’s how crazed this stock market has gotten.

So it’s tempting to short Tesla even as the bloodletting among Tesla shorts has become legendary. Read….  4 Short Sellers Explain Why They Target Tesla – But Don’t Try to Do this at Home

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  56 comments for “#Carmageddon Not Yet, But Hot Air Hisses out of Auto Bubble

  1. Boo Randy says:

    Wonder how many of those “sales” (using loose credit) are going to end up at auto auctions?

    • Matt says:

      When you have season ending clearance coming up a long with used cars sitting on lots? Add new models most likely being dumped then refused delivery on dealer lots? Auto parts suppliers got raked today so I believe the dominoes have started to fall regardless what the market numbers look like

  2. Raymond C. Rogers says:

    How do incentives work in terms of taxes? Do the manufacturers get to claim these as costs and deduct them against profits? Why are these so commonplace?

    • Wolf Richter says:

      Incentives or “rebates,” as they used to be called, are just price discounts. They lower revenues and profits, including taxable income, just like any discount or price cut would.

      • Raymond Rogers says:

        I realize that, I was just wondering if there was a tax scheme attached to it.

        • T.J. says:

          There is. My last new car purchase (sticker $22,500. Purchase price $12,900) should have carried a tax burden of $999.75, sales tax 7.75%. The taxes were an extra $400 because I had to pay sales tax on some portion of the discount, maybe rebates.

  3. Ken says:

    I guess Wolf’s sales and incentive chart above tells me my next car will be a Subaru. Both Toyota and Honda have lost their quality and their incentives show it.

    Ps- please don’t tell me your ‘great car stories’ about your Honda or Toyota, that was 20 years ago! Now they make GM or Ford quality junk -IMHO.

    • Boo Randy says:

      Subaru is involved in a class-action lawsuit over excessive oil consumption and premature engine wear in recent-year car models. You may want to check out the online Subaru forums and do some research before you make your purchase choice.

    • wkevinw says:

      Actually the statistics say that the repair rates continue to improve, such that the number repairs of the lower quality makes, e.g. Jeep, are better than the good ones were 20 years ago. The Jeep models continue to sell well because they have good features and even though their quality scores are low, they are good enough for owners to like them.

      My family (Dad, specifically) has been wrenching on mostly American cars for about 60 years now, and has seen all of them evolve. (He was a racing mechanic in the ’50’s). The engineering today is far better than ever.

      The resto-rod category happened because of this: put modern mechanicals on the externals to get the old style with the new engineering. It’s the way to get a good driver from an old car you like.

    • TJ Martin says:

      Errrr .. close .. but not quite . The wife has had Toyota’s since the 80’s and while the customer service has fallen into the abyss big time the overall quality and reliability has for the most part remained the same .

      As for Subaru .. hmm .. gotta tell you Ken … all aint peachy keen over Subaru way . Yes they’ve been the flavor of the month for over three years [ due in no small part to the demise of SAAB and Subaru’s intentional marketing to the LGBTQ community ] Yes they’re the only company not sitting on lots full of unsold inventory . And yes their marketing has been beyond successful .. posturing themselves as the friendly car company ( environment pets etc ) rather than the macho brand . But there are problems as well such as their very own SubaruGate [ inflated mpg ] that for some reason still has not surfaced [ if Wolf gives me permission I’ll go into detail ] The proprietary tools needed to work on a Subaru mandating dealer or Suby Specialist service and repair only . Mr Randy’s comment on excessive oil consumption . etc – et al .

      And here’s a scary thought . I own a Mercedes ( GLK ) .. a relative owns a comparable same year Subaru Tribeca [ which wound up costing more than my GLK did ]

      Like to know which has been in the shop more .. as well as which has cost the most to own … including insurance ?

      His Tribeca . Which is to say … buy a car based on your needs and budget as well as reliability ratings … not the brand . Cause in the end ….

      ” Everybody Lies “

      • Wolf Richter says:

        TJ, you have my permission to comment on “SubaruGate” :-)

        Make sure to start a new comment so it has the full column width.

      • Dan Romig says:

        My local mechanic was recently working on a 2014 WRX STI, which I have always admired for its performance and drivability in Minnesota’s winters.

        “What do you think of this bad boy?” I asked.
        His answer surprised me, “It’s fast as hell, but these things are poorly made. The fit and quality of the components is not good. This is not the first time it’s been in my shop.”

        OK, that’s not a large sample to base judgements on, but my mechanic is an ex-Army Ranger, competitive motorcycle drag racer and damned skilled at his trade, so his word is gospel to me. He runs a one-man shop with two lifts and has a five week waiting list; $75 bucks an hour and prefers cash.

        • Dan Romig says:

          Correction: the WRX STI was an ’08 not a ’14, otherwise it should have been under warranty. My mechanic now charges $100 an hour which is still a great deal though.

    • intosh says:

      While it may be true that “Toyota and Honda have lost their quality” (no one makes cars destined to last 15-20 years anymore). Suggesting that incentives is proof of this claim is absurd. This is an industry-wide situation.

      • TheDona says:

        My Toyota Highlander is a tad over 9 years old now and there have been no issues or repairs. There was a recall notice…to replace the drivers floor mat. LOL!

        Still solid…no squeaks or give in the steering. It is hell on wheels for long distance trips. I am determined to see how many more years I can get out of it. Shooting for at least 5 more years. This is just me being hard-headed.

        So no new car for me. I am afraid they will not be made as well.

        • intosh says:

          I have had mine for 12 years now.

          Same here. I don’t think the newer ones are not made to last as long and with all the electronics and sensors, I heard its harder and more expensive to service and maintain.

    • Lt. Dan says:

      I’m in the auto industry and the new standard to beat is Hyundai…I know hard to believe. You’re correct in recent years Honda, Toyota, Big-3 all have lowered their QC to meet their sales target…a 3-year 36K mile Lease. A vehicle from 8-10 years ago is preferred regardless of make…better made as opposed to emphasis on electronic toys we see today. Goldman is forecasting a 50% price reduction in used vehicles as leases and huge discounts on new cars flood the market.
      Lt. Dan

    • TJ Martin says:

      SubaruGate ; Subaru has been know to alter the software in all their AWD cars they send out for mpg verification that disables the AWD function keeping the car in FWD only regardless of driving conditions etc in order to increase mpg ratings . Best guesstimate by most insiders is that by doing so they increase the mpg rating by some 2-6 mpg . Why this has never become an issue despite having been reported many times is beyond me . But then again I’m betting Subaru are not the only ones playing this little AWD/FWD smoke and mirrors game .. so …….

    • Veritas says:

      I was about to go for a Subaru until I went into a Volkswagen dealer and got a used 16 golf s TSI bought it with nearly 7k miles and nearly going to 10k soon no issues to date and is built better than anything comparable on the road today​. I have no regrets from my purchase. But unfortunately the other brands such as Toyota, Nissan, Kia, Hyundai, Honda, Mitsubishi, Ford,most GM vehicles, Chrysler poor brands can’t even be mostly considered reliable built vehicles of today which is disappointing.

  4. michael Engel says:

    Wolfstreet.com is cars and real estate.
    Trump is real estate.
    The president read your blog.

  5. Violette says:

    Why is Mazda missing from the chart?

    • Wolf Richter says:

      As I said in the article, not enough market share, along with a bunch of others. This is a list of the biggest ones. Mazda has a market share of 1.6%.

  6. david says:

    Can’t wait for TSLAs report tomorrow. My favorite time in earnings to see what kind of Non GAAP nonsense they pull off. We can all gather tomorrow and have a good laugh :-) They have their work cut out to top CAT and TWTR.

    • akiddy111 says:

      Tesla is showing very impressive unit and revenue growth. That being said, I’m still short the stock.

      Research In Motion (RIMM) showed impressive unit and revenue growth in 2007. Times change.

    • MC says:

      I’ve learned the hard way never to say anything about Tesla.
      If you don’t genuflect in front of it, the fanboys will rip you to shreds and run you out of town.
      Of course not a single of said fanboys owns a Tesla or placed an order for it: they all drive around in Chrysler minivans or some other similar vehicle. But you can bet they will faithfully repeat every piece of hype originating from the Cult Elders.

      Tesla reminds me of “smart motorcycles'” fanboys. Neither them nor the bikes they hype (but do not own) fit the description of “smart”.

      • Michael Fiorillo says:

        “Smart” devices, stupid people.

        It seems to be a thing.

      • Kent says:

        “they all drive around in Chrysler minivans or some other similar vehicle.”

        Cold-blooded brother. But I enjoyed it.

      • Meme Imfurst says:

        Why the surprise?

        Free speech is the new enemy, that includes opinions.

        Dare you pepper it with facts and you are now marked.

      • intosh says:

        Sheep blinded by idolization (Elon Musk) and the halo effect of a status symbol. But of course, they will pretend that they are doing it for the planet.

        • MC says:

          Let me reiterate this: Tesla’s most rabid and vocal supporters are not owners or prospective buyers. It’s the same phenomenon I observed with aforementioned “smart” motorcycles: these people have zero intention (and often means) of buying what they so ferociously try to impose upon others.
          They have no skin in the game but a gigantic emotive investment and are the automotive equivalent of the social media “white knight” figure, hoping to win approval from somebody who doesn’t know they exist and likely doesn’t even care about them.

        • intosh says:

          Fanboy-ism or idolization, of course, is not conditional to actually owning the related product or having a “skin in the game”.

  7. Ian says:

    GM economist – ”When you look at the broader economy, including a strong job market, rising wages, low inflation and low interest rates, and couple them to low fuel prices and strong consumer confidence, you have everything you need….”
    Clearly if the above was true there would indeed be no problem however the sales figures are hard facts while the list above is largely statistical mumbo jumbo, so I will give you no prizes for guessing which is the correct barometer of the situation.

    • Mel says:

      When he looked at the broader economy, he must have been looking in 1956.

      Carthage has been destroyed for a long time now; Cicero’s famous line has gotten really old. It’s time to go with the new line:


      We’ll bore ourselves silly, but somebody’s got to do it.

      • chris Hauser says:


        a lot of people have no money, and the numbers are growing.

        a lot of new cars out there, a lot of cars coming off lease, and tesla will have a tough time competing.


  8. garrett says:

    I got 9,500 in rebates on my 2016 Nissan altima 3.5 :)

  9. Meme Imfurst says:

    We have seen this before actually. Manufacturers think that they have to put in every last fad, every last idea of comfort, every last APP and toy, and …drum roll please…BLUE dashboard lights, for the public to desire their cars.

    The old luddite here wants something to go to the grocery store, doctor, and get back home safely. The rest I do not need or want….”but Mr.! you have to have GPS and ‘starsvoice’ and would wide radio, bla bla bal.”, that is standard equipment.

    NO I DON”T NEED, I and will not pay 30 to 50,000 for a damn car.
    AND, If you pay more than that, then you must have small hands.

    OK…I just sold myself on UBER and LIFT.

  10. Trmist says:

    Hopefully people are wising up and putting their money to better uses than car buying. If so it is probably necessary driven. All our household expenses are up and income is flat or tending down. Going to a one car family really improved the monthly income statement. We needed to be creative and flexible but more bicycle trip and occasionally public transit use saves us over $500 a month on maintaing a second car. Oh and we are driving an 11 year old car and hope to get a few more years out of it. Cheers.

  11. intosh says:

    About Tesla, I was reading about China’s EV market. Apparently, more EV cars were sold there then in the US and Europe. According to this: https://cleantechnica.com/2017/01/25/china-electric-car-sales-demolish-us-european-sales/

    351,861 EV were sold in 2016. The top ten brands are all Chinese brands. Tesla isn’t even in the top 15 in sales. Yes, it is currently selling a more expensive and upscale model; but that also means that if Tesla was to introduce a cheaper model in China, it will likely meet plenty of competition, a much fiercer competition than the one in the US. And as the Apple’s iPhone sales in China has shown, brand recognition can only carry you so far over there. So a cheap Tesla car in China will enjoy a good initial sales boost and will likely be unsustainable in the long run.

    • MC says:

      The Chinese government introduced incentives in 2015 for electric, fuel cell and plug-in hybrid cars of up to 55,000 yuan.
      The catch is, of course, the vehicle has to be domestically assembled and carry a minimum amount of domestic components: sorry Toyota and BMW. merely assembling your cars in China from knockoff kits won’t work.

      On top of this a number of Chinese cities, led by Shenzhen, have imposed limits on new car registrations to fight pollution and congestion. Aforementioned low and no emission vehicles are either exempted or assigned priority over others.
      Again there’s a catch. Charging stations are still not as widespread as one may imagine and, possibly worse, Chinese manufacturers have no unified charging standard so a charging station built for a BAIC may not work for a Kandi and viceversa.

      As usual not all that glitters is gold.

      • intosh says:

        Right. It has to start somewhere. The market is still at its infancy. The Chinese government is starting pour massive amount of money on the infrastructure. The press says they aim to add 100,000 public charging stations in 2017 alone. There are currently about 150,000 stations. The US has about 41,000.

        • MC says:

          I really hope the insulation they use on cables is slightly better than that commonly found in big box store electric wires, otherwise they may need to bailout their whole fire insurance sector.

  12. Herbert Davis says:

    Having gone to lala land as they raised their sticker/profit price and used bullshit to sell to the stupid, they are now finding out that their million dollar salaries are out of the bag and their profit is coming back to “just good” compared to every other product on the market.

    Too many talented and poor men willing to keep the old ones running to justify getting soaked by the con artists.

  13. LeClerc says:

    Truck sales are still strong, though. And incentives are just a variable pricing scheme that works as long as the wholesale transaction is profitable.

    If gasoline goes to $4+/gal., repo’ed trucks will replace new cars at dead-mall lots, and incentives on fuel-efficient vehicles will disappear.

  14. Aleks says:

    It would seem to me that the best indicator of actual auto sales should be monthly auto registrations. After all no ones buys a new car to just sit on it…aside from a collector or two. So why is this number never referred to in any business publications. Just a simple question..

    • Wolf Richter says:

      These sales are deliveries and equal registrations for all practical purposes. When the dealer delivers a car, it is either registered by the dealer or by the customer within days of delivery.

      In Japan, Europe, and other places, registrations are done at the national level. So there is one office that has the data and publishes it with some delay. In the US, registrations are done at the state level. So there are 50 of these DMVs – plus the one in DC. They have the data. But there has been no effort made to coordinate this because the benefits would be nil.

      In the US, dealer deliveries have been used for many decades long before the internet made things easier. All dealers are franchised. They have to report to their manufacturer every detail of their operations, including deliveries. The manufacturer gathers this data on a nationwide basis and publishes it. It’s simple and has worked great. And so no one has bothered to try to herd 50 state DMVs all into one place to produce the same data based on registrations.

      • Lee says:

        Here in Oz the dealers will ‘plate’ or register a number of cars on the lot at the end of the month to show them as being sold.

        They do this for a number of reasons of which the most important is to make the sales quota for that month. Some months there would be a large number done. Other months only a few.

        Once plated the cars are no longer ‘new’ and with special rules for car dealers the cost of the plating is cheaper than for the general public.

        Once sold to a retail customer another registration fee (the normal registration cost) is paid to the government.

        So you can see from this type of action that there are huge $$$ incentives to the dealer to show the car as being ‘sold’ (plated or registered ) in order to collect the bucks from the car manufacturer.

        If one were looking at car registration data it wouldn’t show the true state of sales as the car is still sitting on the lot and in fact owned by the dealer.

        Does this type of activity (plating) go on in the USA?

        And here is an article about Holden (GM’s Australian brand) showing that car sales have fallen to less than 100,000 units:

        “Holden sales dipped below 100,000 cars for the first time in 26 years last year. The company sold 94,308 vehicles in 2016, down from 102,951 cars in 2015.”

        You can also see how much money they are actually losing here in Oz:


        • Wolf Richter says:

          Thanks for the insights into “plating.”

          In my experience, what dealers can do to increase retail sales numbers by a couple of units (not by many) is to “deliver” vehicles to customers at the end of the month, even if they have bad credit and were turned down by the lender. The deal is in fact never complete because there is no payment.

          But it doesn’t do much good… After the cutoff, you call the customer and have them bring the car back (maybe you can put them in a cheaper used car). There is no registration because the deal is never complete and the car remains “new.” You also have to back out this sale on your own books (if you actually booked it) and you have to back it out with your manufacturer, so it counts as a negative sale in that month. So back then, there wasn’t a lot of reason to do this.

          There were allegations by some Chrysler dealers in early 2016 that FCA was inflating its monthly sales figures. Six months later the government started investigating. I don’t know how this turned out…

        • Lee says:


          Well some months IIRC the numbers would be as high as 25 cars in one brand. The type of car ranged from the cheapest model all the way up to the A$100k plus top of line models.

          You would walk on the lot and see a huge number of ‘new’ cars with plates on them. Very few without plates. Some were even in the showroom.

          Some of these cars were used as ‘demos’ for customers to test drive. Depending on how long they had been on the lot they were then used by the business for loan cars or drive cars for the salesmen.

          When they had big sales these were often the ones discounted the most.

        • Wolf Richter says:

          Funny how things differ…

          In the US, in the states that I’m familiar with, putting a “demo” tag on the car wasn’t the registration of a sale. It wasn’t registered at all. The dealer has a set number of registered D-tags and can put them on whichever car or truck they want, whenever they want. This doesn’t count as a sale. The car is still considered new. Customers know they’re buying a demo – a new car with some miles on it – and they’re usually getting a discount.

          Occasionally we’d have a “demo” sale. They worked pretty well. People thought they were getting deals.

          Demos are usually used as personal transportation by management and sales staff. They’re also used to demo the vehicle to the customers … but our customers could test-drive any vehicle on the lot.

      • Jim Graham says:

        In the late 60’s / early 70’s I worked in GM and Ford dealers. When there was a “push” to sell “lot cars” we would add a few days to the current month. That would rob sales from the following month, but we would meet quotas and get the bonuses that came with the “extra” sales that “month”.

        I suppose that it is still being done today.

        • Wolf Richter says:

          When I was still in the business, which was until 1995, this was no longer possible because of the cut-off day by which every deal had to be submitted. What we did do was submit a few mind deals (no financing lined up) that we ended up having to back out the following month. But that was mostly done by wishful thinking.

  15. Dimitri says:

    Just got a call from the local Mazda dealer. They are selling ALL 2016 models 2000$ under invoice, plus all used models with a 15% discount off purchase price. Also, credit is not an issue … color me surprised.

  16. Roman T. says:

    Re: Tesla The Nissan Note hybrid is #2 selling car in Japan. All-electric requires too much thinking about the car’s range. This Hybrid Note has an electric motor with a gas powered generator. The gas engine does not connect to the drive train (like a Prius). It’s only to charge the batteries to increase the range. Range reportedly above 800km.

    Tesla wants to avoid this since an all electric car has so many less moving parts. But can they?

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