As we previewed in our January 2021 SAAR post, February SAAR (a measure of Light-Weight Vehicle Sales: Auto and Light Trucks) declined as expected to 15.7 million from 16.6 million the previous month. This is a decline of 6.6% from the same period last year.
However, given the circumstances with the winter storm that occurred this past month, many dealerships are most likely happy the decline wasn’t worse than it was. Furthermore, adjusting for calendar variances between this year and last also paints a different picture. February 2021 contained two fewer selling days and one fewer selling weekend than February 2020. When this is taken into consideration, JD Power reported retail sales actually increased 3.3% compared to the year prior. SAAR continues to be dragged down by lagging fleet performance.
Inventory levels remain tight due to both strong retail demand and the current microchip shortage. According to NADA Marketbeat, the global semiconductor microchip shortage is expected to cause production losses in North America around 250,000 in the first quarter of 2021. Nearly all OEMs have been affected, and it continues to add pressure on already tight inventory levels. However, the shortages are anticipated to resolve by Q3 of this year.
The tight inventory levels are having impacts on average vehicle days on the lots, manufacturer incentives, and transaction prices. As noted in JD Power’s February 2021 Automotive Forecast, the average number of days a new vehicle sits on a dealer’s lot before being sold is on pace to fall to 53 days, down 18 days from last year.
For incentives, higher levels of vehicle turnover translates to manufacturers not feeling much pressure to offer discounts. The average manufacturer incentive is anticipated to be $3,562 per vehicle for February, a decrease of $614 from a year ago.
Related to these declines in incentives, average transaction prices continue to be strong. Transaction prices are going up due to low supply most likely. Incentives go up when demand declines and they need to incentivize the purchases. JD Power notes that average transaction prices are expected to reach another monthly high, rising to 9.8% to $37,524, the highest ever for the month of February and nearly at the record set in December 2020.
On the matter of the February SAAR, Thomas King, president of the data and analytics division at J.D. Power noted:
“While the ongoing strength of the sales rate is impressive, the transaction prices and profitability of those sales is nothing short of remarkable. The combination of strong retail sales, higher transaction prices and smaller discounts means that February 2021 likely will be one of the most profitable Februarys ever for both retailers and manufacturers. As February results will show, while inventories are lean, there is still enough inventory to maintain positive sales growth in the near term. However, the lingering risk to the current retail sales pace for the balance of the year is supply chain disruption.”
As we turn our attention to March, there are several positive tailwinds that could prove beneficial for SAAR, as well as potential headwinds.
With the winter storms that crippled Texas and much of the southeast behind us, there are hopes that March is going to bring back a sense of normalcy. Pent-up demand stemming from people being indoors due to the weather could prove to be a positive force for March SAAR. Anecdotally, daylight savings time always puts me in a good mood when it’s not dark outside at the end of the workday. We believe this will pair well with the below tailwinds.
On March 11, President Joe Biden signed a sweeping $1.9 trillion COVID-19 economic relief package into law.
Key features of the plan include up to $1,400-per-person stimulus payments that will send money to about 90% of households, a $300 federal boost to weekly jobless benefits, an expansion of the child tax credit of up to $3,600 per child and $350 billion in state and local aid. Additionally, billions of dollars will be distributed among K-12 schools to help students return to the classroom, small businesses hard-hit by the pandemic, and vaccine research, development, and distribution.
The overall influx of cash into the economy is bound to have a positive impact on dealerships as consumer’s disposable income levels get a boost.
Since vaccine distribution began in the U.S. on December 14th, more than 107 million doses have been administered, reaching 21% of the total U.S. population. The U.S. is currently administering over 2.3 million shots a day. Furthermore, President Biden has issued a statement that vaccines be available to all Americans by May 1st. As the population continues to get vaccinated, there will be more opportunities for people to return to their day-to-day lives and participate in more in-person activities. This may prove to be a positive tailwind for dealerships that rely on in-person customer visits to move vehicles. We are cautiously optimistic that we will be able to attend summer auto conferences.
As we have touched on previously, the chip shortage is going to be a problem for boosting inventory levels until at least Q3 of this year. However, once the bottleneck due to the shortage is relieved, dealers should expect to be able to build back up their inventories. It will be interesting to see how gross margins perform as these shortages are alleviated.
A Final Note
If you have any questions about SAAR and what it means in the broader context of a valuation of your dealership, reach out to a member of Mercer Capital’s Auto Dealer Industry Team. We hope that you and your loved ones are continuing to stay safe and healthy during this time!