After steady increases, SAAR (a measure of Light-Weight Vehicle Sales: Auto and Light Trucks) experienced its first notable decline since April, dropping to 15.6 million from 16.3 million in October. November 2020 is down by 8.4% compared to the same period in 2019, and through 11 months of the year, new light-vehicle sales are down 16.7% compared to the same period last year. The calendar differences are important to note for this month with November 2020 only having 23 selling days relative to 26 days in November 2019. As Thomas King, president of data and analytics division at JD Power notes:
November 2020 is a prime example of why accounting for selling day differences is important in measuring comparable sales performance. After two consecutive months of year-over-year retail sales gains, a quirk in the November sales calendar will result in new-vehicle retail sales appearing to fall 12%. This year, November has three fewer selling days and one less selling weekend compared with 2019. When these calendar quirks are accounted for, new-vehicle retail sales are expected to almost match 2019 levels. While the sales results illustrate the continued strength of consumer demand, that strength is further reinforced by transaction prices hitting another record high, even as manufacturers and retailers continue to remain disciplined on new-vehicle incentives and discounts.
While adjusting for calendar differences is important in determining true trends that are occurring in the industry, it is also necessary to consider retail SAAR vs. total SAAR.
While retail SAAR includes the daily selling rate for retail auto sales to individual customers, total SAAR also includes fleet sales to businesses, government, and daily rental companies. Because of this distinction, considering just total SAAR alone may not indicate actual consumer purchase trends. This has been especially notable for this year as fleet vehicle sales and rental companies have been inordinately affected by the pandemic compared to auto dealer sales.
Though dealerships experienced a decline when they had to shut down due to stay-at-home orders, business picked back up once they could reopen. Fleet sales, on the other hand, are suffering from changes in consumer trends due to the pandemic, rather than government mandates. For example, many businesses have adopted a work from home model to keep employees healthy during the pandemic. As such, rental car needs for business purposes have declined. Furthermore, overall travel, in general, is down as people have been wary to fly, further impacting this market. May was the toughest month with rental units declining 91%, and Hertz announcing their bankruptcy. From March through September 2020, fleet sales have seen an average monthly decline of 53% with November fairing slightly better with a 25% decline from the same time last year.
Observing the implications numerically can be helpful to further illustrate this point. As you can see in the chart produced by JD Power, while total SAAR is down 7.6% (unadjusted for calendar dates), retail SAAR is only down 5.1% (also unadjusted). These numbers reflect the brunt of economic difficulty that fleet sales have faced relative to retail sales. An important note is that this graph is primarily for illustrative purposes with both of these SAAR numbers being predictive rather than actual.
Average incentive spending per unit is expected to top $3,800, marking the third straight month of incentives below $4,000, which reflects strong vehicle demand supporting sales. The average new-vehicle retail transaction price in November is expected to reach a record $37,099, topping the previous record last month of $36,755.
While tight inventory constraints have plagued the industry all year, there are signs that things are improving. According to Cox Automotive Senior Economist Charlie Chesbrough, “The tight inventory situation, where available products at dealerships were drawn down to very low levels, reached a peak in late summer. However, factory production has improved while sales pace has slowed, and the combination is allowing dealerships to replenish somewhat. Overall, supply still remains far below last year’s levels, and holiday sales may slow if buyers can’t find what they want.” With factories now operating at pre-pandemic levels, production has not been the hurdle it was through mid-year.
It is important to note potential tailwinds to SAAR going into the end of the year, specifically in terms of the COVID-19 pandemic and ongoing U.S. politics. As of writing this blog post, coronavirus cases are surging throughout the country as a result of colder weather and indoor gatherings to celebrate the holidays. With restrictions being put back in place throughout the country, dealerships may see less foot traffic as people try to limit exposure as much as possible. However, with promising news on the vaccine front in the past month, hopes are high that there may be a return to normalcy on the horizon.
The political climate continues to pose challenges for auto dealerships as a new stimulus continues to be stuck in a divided Congress. Weekly unemployment claims might be starting to be affected by the lack of stimulus with more than 947,000 workers filing new claims for state unemployment benefits the first week of December. Applications have risen three times in the last four weeks and are up nearly a quarter of a million since the first week of November. This is evident when looking at the chart below produced by the New York Times.
While we think it’s far too early to suggest we might be falling into a second decline, the downturn in SAAR this month shows we are not yet out of this pandemic. An effective and distributable vaccine should boost economic activity and support employment figures and in turn boost consumer spending on items such as vehicles. However, we note that reduced business travel may have long-term impacts on rental businesses, and fleet sales may not return to pre-pandemic levels as a second order impact. We will continue to monitor these trends as I’m sure you and all of our auto dealer clients will.
If you want to discuss how SAAR (total and retail) and the greater macroeconomic environment may impact your dealership, contact a member of the Mercer Capital Auto Dealer team today.