Earnings Calls: Executive Summary
Supply issues continue to dominate the industry with no end in sight. New vehicle days’ supply is significantly below used vehicle supply given the numerous channels through which used vehicles can be acquired. As one would expect, supply chain issues have less impact on domestic dealerships than imports, particularly luxury.
Many dealers currently have a significant number of pre-sold vehicles, which would account for either 0 or 1 days’ supply if these vehicles were on the lot. While days’ supply in the teens seems astronomically low, compared to 60+ days pre-COVID, the level of pre-sales some dealers are seeing, in actuality, means either there are timing issues with reporting or the vehicles that aren’t pre-sold are staying on the lot much longer. For example, if a dealer has 50% pre-sold and reports 30 days’ supply, that means 50 cars are sold in 0 or 1 day, and the others are sitting on the lot for two months. We find this to be an interesting dynamic and wonder if it means OEMs have yet to perfect which models to build even when prioritizing the most popular vehicles.
The question was raised: what do long-term expectations look like, given that the benefits of higher prices have largely flowed to the dealers in this cycle? One analyst suggested dealers might be at peak earnings (which Group 1 said wasn’t the case) and that OEMs are starting to see that maybe this is a more sustainable model for everyone. Another analyst noted that dealer margins have tripled in the past couple of years while margins of North American producers have been stable and asked why they haven’t repriced some of their vehicle invoices. AutoNation’s CEO Michael Manley indicated that the reduction in incentives has effectively improved the net transaction price of their vehicles. However, he conceded that OEMs facing rising costs would likely look to adjust margins going forward.
We’re going to go ahead and call our shot that a theme next quarter may be share buybacks. This type of capital allocation decision is not unique to auto dealers and therefore is not really an industry “theme,” but we still find it notable. The recently passed Inflation Reduction Act came together after earnings were released, and each call mentioned share buybacks as an ingredient in the capital allocation strategy with no mention of the Act.
Share buybacks will now be subject to a 1% tax, and it remains to be seen whether that will be enough to deter the activity. As Group 1 Automotive’s CEO Earl Hesterberg said this quarter, share buybacks come with no execution risk, unlike M&A. While this opportunity is not really available to private auto dealers, both public and private dealers must figure out the best return available on the heightened profits they’re receiving while the inventory shortage persists. Winners and losers will likely be separated by what investments are made before profits normalize.
As valuation analysts, we like to note any mention of valuation multiples offered by the public auto dealers, which are pertinent to our private dealer clients. Lithia reiterated their valuation targets (purchase prices 15-30% of revenues, 3x-7x EBITDA, and a minimum of 15% after-tax returns). This quarter, Penske offered their views on current valuations in the marketplace, which are more in keeping with how auto dealers communicate value (in terms of Blue Sky multiples). Mr. Penske said,
“If you’re looking at a premium luxury, German brand, so BMW and Mercedes, Porsche, Audi you’re looking at probably eight or nine times trailing 12 EBT for goodwill plus assets would be what we see. We’ve been able to make acquisitions for less than that where they’re smaller and maybe not in the premium luxury side. Toyota and Honda are very strong. And to me, there are some people that just are going to get out of the business at the point. I think there is competition out there to buy these better points. But what’s happening is many of us are running into what we call framework agreements which limit the amount of stores you can have in a particular market or with a particular brand.”
While this appears to be within the range of Haig’s quoted multiples for these brands, it’s extremely important to note that this is on trailing earnings or, as one analyst suggested on a different call, “peak” earnings. If a dealer was making $1.5 million pre-pandemic and is now making closer to $3 million, Haig’s 3-year average might suggest “ongoing” earnings of $2.5 million. Applying Haig’s average mid-point multiple for these four brands (approx. 8.2x), Blue Sky would be approximately $20.5 million. Taking Penske’s midpoint 8.5x multiple on LTM earnings of $3 million, Blue Sky value is $25.5 million, or an increase of 24.4%.
We also found it interesting that Porsche and Audi were put on the same playing field in terms of multiples, while Haig’s Q1 newsletter suggested Audi was closer to 6.75x while Porsche was 9.5x.
The comment on framework agreements is also perhaps a different spin on this discussion. While the public dealers have been more acquisitive lately, dealers may not want to wait too long to sell as the buyers able to pay the most may soon run out of runway to complete acquisitions unless a fundamental shift occurs in how many dealerships one company can have in a brand or market.
Here are some other major themes from the Q2 2022 Public Auto Earnings Calls:
Theme 1: Dealers continue to pre-sell a significant amount of their new vehicles, particularly compared to pre-pandemic pre-sales levels. With questions about an agency model, it’s unclear what the long-term rate of pre-sales will look like once inventories normalize.
- “I think the new car business is solid, but it’s really hard to understand how strong it is because you have such a low days supply. Generally speaking, we’re still pre-selling half the cars that are coming in. So a lot of these cars aren’t getting to hit the ground. It varies a little bit by brand, but generally, that’s where it is overall.”
– David Hult, CEO, Asbury Automotive Group
- When you look at our domestic business, about half of our pipeline is pre-sold. When you look at our volume imports, it’s 80%, some as high as 95%. And when you look at our luxuries, it’s in the 60% range. And that is right where it’s been for the last couple of quarters.”
– Daryl Kenningham, President, U.S. and Brazilian Operations, Group 1 Automotive
- “I would say on new vehicles, about one-third of our product is pre-sold that’s coming in. So that’s good. And I think it’s a lot of high-demand vehicles. The rest of the stuff may be wait-listed, but it’s not pre-sold where we have money on the car. […] We don’t have the exact data. We got it by franchise somewhere. But I would say it was close to 50% 90 days ago. So since interest rates have come up, it’s definitely affected things, but it’s still a robust environment where those cars hit the ground. And if someone that wants to drive the car and there’s two other people waiting to drive the same car, and it’s still a bit of a frenzy.”
– Bryan DeBoer, President and CEO, Lithia Motors
- “Demand is strong as we mentioned. Inventory levels are still incredibly low, high turn rates, and really sustained margins over the last few quarters. In the first quarter, from memory, I reported something like 50% of our incoming three months inventory was sold. I would say that on the domestic side, that is now down to about 35%. On imports, it is sustained, and on premium, it is also largely sustained.”
– Michael Manley, CEO, AutoNation
Theme 2: As one might expect, the degree of unavailability when it comes to the inventory shortage depends on both make and model, with more desirable vehicles being in shorter supply. With global supply chain issues, it also makes sense that domestic vehicles are more readily available.
- “Similar to the last few quarters, we continue to see limited new vehicle production and inventory levels due to supply chain disruptions and strong consumer demand for new vehicles. This contributed to a 33% decrease in same-store retail new vehicle unit sales volume higher than the industry retail SAAR decline of 20% due to our luxury and import weighted brand mix, which continues to have lower days’ supply of inventory than domestic brands”– David Smith, CEO, Sonic Automotive
“Our domestic days’ supply on new is around 60 days. So we have pretty good flow even though there’s some in-transit on that. Really our softness in days’ supply, which is where we really are selling every car that we get about as quick as we can get them is in our imports, which we’re sitting at a 16-day supply and our luxuries are sitting at about a 29-day supply.”– Bryan DeBoer, President and CEO, Lithia Motors
- “We have a 21-day supply of new vehicles with premium at 23, volume foreign at 8, and domestic at 21. New vehicle supply is at 12 days in the U.S. and 32 days in the U.K. We continue to sell into our future new vehicle pipeline to support tour customers, maximize inventory turn and minimize our inventory costs.”– Roger Penske, Chairman & CEO, Penske Automotive Group
Theme 3: Continuing a theme from last quarter, analysts asked if executives were seeing signs of a struggling consumer. They also wondered if banks were being tighter with credit, given macro headwinds and inflated vehicle prices, though the public auto dealers generally downplayed concerns. When Penske was asked about entering the captive finance space, their response indicated a level of concern about the strength of the consumer. An analyst offered that there was a tiny sequential erosion in the strength of the consumer, but it was still strong relative to pre-pandemic and relative to supply which AutoNation agreed with.
- “With consumers financially healthy, consumer financing readily available, the car park aged to record levels and sizable pent up demand combined with our technology to improve efficiency and productivity, we are well-positioned to weather the current market conditions. […] I would say people were impulsively buying six months ago. They’re probably putting a little bit more thought and care into the selection and the pricing right now.”– David Hult, CEO, Asbury Automotive Group
- “We’re seeing no tightening whatsoever. When you think about the asset class performed very well in 2008 and ’09. And when I talked to the head of these finance companies, as I said, they’re seeing some delinquency increase on the lower end but its back to pre-COVID levels. But I think the reassuring part of that is losses are historic lows and the appetite for car loans is robust. So, we have not lost any car business because of the availability of credit.”– Peter DeLongchamps, SVP, Manufacturer Relations, Financial Services and Public Affairs, Group 1 Automotive
- The demand is there, but the demand is not there for a $640 monthly payment for preowned that’s what you’re getting and you’re selling a 1- to 4- year car right now at $30,000 to $31,000. And so retooling to the 5-year-old plus cars, we’re able to get that monthly payment back down into the $400 range, which is historically where it needs to be. So, consumers are buying a little higher amount car at a lower payment. And we’ve been able to continue to keep our warranty penetration up there. So not concerned at all about preowned demand.”– Jeff Dyke, President, Sonic Automotive
- “Today with delinquencies going up on retail across all other markets, I wonder — and then you’re going to blow up your balance sheet. And on top of that you’re going to have to take that and sell it into the market and securitize it. And I think today, the people that buy that are going to say is this really what we want to buy 72-month or 60-month paper from the standpoint in the car business with the inflation that we’ve had on used car prices? So not that we won’t ever get into it, but we think it’s a bad idea. Right now, we don’t think that glove fits our hand.”– Roger Penske, Chairman & CEO, Penske Automotive Group
At Mercer Capital, we follow the auto industry closely in order to stay current with trends in the marketplace. These give insight into the market that may exist for a private dealership which informs our valuation engagements. To understand how the above themes may or may not impact your business, contact a professional at Mercer Capital to discuss your needs in confidence.