The Rebirth of the U.S. Auto Industry? Not So Fast

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Jim R. Bounds / Bloomberg via Getty Images

Unsold Ford SUV's on display in Raleigh, N.C.

Over the past year, story after story has touted the rebirth of the U.S. auto industry. Ford Motors, which unlike General Motors and Chrysler survived the 2008-2009 crisis without taking bailout money from the federal government, has enjoyed a string of positive reviews, and its earnings and revenue are higher than at any point since the 1990s.

The industry did pull out of its death swoon. But there’s a large gap between surviving and thriving, and while the industry may have achieved the former, it’s a long way from the latter.

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Part of the problem is expectations. Americans tend to like stories of redemption and rebirth, and the auto industry makes for a good protagonist. But unlike individuals reinventing themselves, U.S. auto companies are part of a global industry that bears little resemblance to the business as it existed during the golden years of the mid-20th century. Industry experts, economists and financial analysts act as if demand for big ticket items — not to mention job growth — will organically resume along with GDP expansion. That leads to specific projections about the number of auto units that will be sold in the coming years assuming, say, 2 to 3% GDP growth. But already there are strong indications that these projections are off the mark.

Take Ford, which is by all accounts extremely well run by CEO Alan Mulally. The company is saying it expects to sell 50 percent more autos in 2016 than it will this year. Some of that growth, it hopes, will come from sales outside the U.S. But it also expects to gain domestic market share, and anticipates a return to a “normal” level of U.S. auto purchases relative to GDP. It may achieve greater market share — but what if it’s dead wrong about domestic auto sales in the years ahead?

But let’s say that Ford somehow meets those expectations, born on the wind of internal positive changes and competitive advantages. Where does that leave GM and Chrysler, not to mention the legion of foreign auto companies with plants and plans for expansion in the U.S.? They can’t all expand at a 50 percent clip in the next five years, yet most of them act as if they will. It is absurd to think that auto sales can massively outpace economic growth. Yet these companies act as if the plunge in 2008-2009 was an anomaly that allowed them to cut costs, trim workers, and return to a profitability and that soon, Americans will once again buy cars the way they did for much of the past 30 years.

Already there are troubling signs that those expectations are far too rosy. You would have thought that General Motors, which was hailed for returning from the dead after its recent IPO that allowed it to exit most of its government ownership, would have learned the lesson of recent years — namely that SUVs and pick-ups are not a sustainable foundation for its U.S. business in a world of soaring gasoline costs, stagnant wages and tighter credit. But, lo and behold, light trucks increasingly sit unsold on dealer lots: Inventories are now at an alarming 122 days, more than 40 days higher than is normal or prudent.

And it’s not just trucks. Overall expectations are for U.S. autos sales to rebound to 15 to 16 million units a year. They are currently at about 13 million, up dramatically from the 10 to 11 million in 2009-2010. But to get to the levels the industry is anticipating would require 20 percent growth, far above any projection for overall economic growth.

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Some industry analysts say the recession forced Americans to hold on to their old cars longer, and that they’ll now replace them at higher than normal rates. Maybe so, but it’s hard not to wonder if U.S. automakers are actually building cars that people will want as replacements — a question that was growing in urgency before the crisis and that the industry has only partly confronted.

The X factor here is global demand for autos, and Chinese demand in particular. Can China be the savior for the U.S. auto industry? China today is the growth market for cars, with still-low penetration and massive demand. GM has a nimble dynamic franchise in China, and sells more cars there than in the U.S. China may well see demand grow at a double-digit pace for years (though sales there have recently slowed).

But sales in China can’t offset strategic blindness in the U.S. market. And in any case, sales in China mostly create jobs in China, where the cars will be built, not in the U.S. So the 700,000 or so auto jobs that remain in this country depend on auto companies correctly reading the tea leaves of future demand. The signs are not good.