Fourth quarter earnings calls started similarly to the previous quarter, with significant increases in earnings per share as lower volumes were supported by higher margins and SG&A expense reductions related to personnel and ad spend continue to benefit dealers. Executives generally believe a portion, though not all, of this expense savings will be sustainable. Productivity has increased as employment levels have remained low despite improving activity.
Long-term, however, low headcount and insufficient ad spend maybe a drag on incremental sales.
February 2021 SAAR was already anticipated to be down from February 2020. February 2020 was the last month prior to the pandemic, did not have supply constraints related to chip shortages, and had a leap day fall on a Saturday.
To compound problems, winter storms in certain areas of the country kept more people at home than mask mandates have in recent months. Most earnings calls occurred before the storms or there was little mention of them. AutoNation referenced January volumes in line with projections, affirming their forecast of approximately 16 million for 2021, though there was no discussion of the impact of the winter weather. Sonic indicated the storms closed some stores in their Texas, Birmingham, and Nashville markets, though they anticipate a quick rebound. Total volumes were down 12.6% in February 2021, but declines were closer to 5% after adjusting for selling days. However, we expect to see significant year-over-year improvements as we reach the one-year milestone of the pandemic.
The proliferation of SPACs in 2020 and continuing into 2021 has been an interesting byproduct of the pandemic. While this has typically been for more speculative operations including EV startups, an article from Automotive News indicates some franchised dealers are mulling the possibility of accessing public capital markets through a SPAC. LMP Automotive, an ecommerce and facilities-based auto retailer already traded on the NASDAQ, closed on its first wave of auto dealerships on Friday, bringing the publicly traded group to seven. With these acquisitions, LMP will be considered in future earnings calls blogs.
On the other hand, the number of public players could well decrease in 2021 as Lithia indicated consolidation amongst the public players may be the best way to ward off competition from used-only players like Carvana. Franchise agreements have long been seen as a hurdle for such significant consolidation, which was downplayed by Lithia. This prompted the question on future calls, and while many anticipate continued consolidation within the industry, Group 1 expressed doubts OEMs would approve such a deal, and AutoNation flat out rejected the notion as they are already the largest public auto dealer.
Theme 1: Microchip shortages represent the latest hiccup in dealers’ quest to restore inventory levels
- We sat here a quarter ago and thought by the end of the first quarter days’ supply would be back up to normal. But because what’s going on with the microchips and some other things, it’s probably going to bleed well into the second quarter before inventories gets back. – David Hult, CEO, Asbury Automotive Group
- We’re quite inventory constrained right now. As you know and we expect the new car inventory situation to continue to be constrained for probably the first half of the year. – Daryl Kenningham, President, U.S. and Brazilian Operations, Group 1 Automotive
- New vehicle inventory levels remain constrained and we expect demand to exceed supply for an extended period. Given these dynamics, we remain focused on optimizing our business in the current operating environment. We expect industry sales to approach 16 million in 2021 with strong retail sales growth compared to last year. We have seen a solid growth in ‘21, with January trends in line with our annual forecast. – Mike Jackson, Chairman & CEO, AutoNation
Theme 2: SG&A to gross profit anticipated to be structurally lower going forward after efficiencies gained during the pandemic
- So we have to be below 70% [SG&A as a % of gross profit]. I think to be competitive. I think the world’s moved on. So, yes so certainly we would expect to be significantly below a 70% level. As we’ve mentioned previously, although we do not expect this level to be sustainable, we do expect there to be significant improvement going forward versus pre-COVID levels. – Daryl Kenningham, President, U.S. and Brazilian Operations, Group 1 Automotive
- During 2020, we took targeted measures to improve operating efficiencies and manage expense throughout our entire organization, fundamentally improving our cost structure. As a result, we achieved all-time record adjusted SG&A expenses as a percentage of gross profit of 68.1% for the fourth quarter of 2020, down 560 basis points from 73.7% in the fourth quarter of 2019. Full year 2020 adjusted SG&A expenses as a percentage of gross profit were 72.9%, 400 basis points better than 2019. For 2021, we expect to continue to see a benefit of our permanent SG&A reductions. – Jeff Dyke, President, Sonic Automotive
- SG&A expense as a percentage of gross profit declined 940 basis points to 69.7% and declined 800 basis points on an adjusted basis to 71.1%. Our success in this area can be attributed to a reduction in T&E, advertising, vehicle maintenance, administrative, personnel and other fixed costs. We estimate that approximately 125 million to 150 million in SG&A costs have been eliminated across our various businesses. – Roger Penske, Chairman & CEO, Penske Automotive Group
- We also remain very active in managing expenses and we achieved SG&A as a percentage of gross profit of 61.4%. Our focus on gross profit and expense management once again produced a great quarter. […] We also changed our production per employee when the downturn hit, and we stayed disciplined with that. […] I think we’ll certainly be in a much better position from an SG&A standpoint than we were pre-COVID. But where exactly […] I think there’s too many variables to call that right now. “We sat here a quarter ago and thought by the end of the first quarter days’ supply would be back up to normal. But because what’s going on with the microchips and some other things, it’s probably going to bleed well into the second quarter before inventories gets back. – David Hult, CEO, Asbury Automotive Group
Theme 3: Lithia suggests public consolidation may be beneficial for entrenched franchised players seeking to ward off competition from rapidly growing used competitors. While other players doubt the likelihood of OEM support, industry-wide consolidation is anticipated to continue
- We do believe that the best way to combat the entire industry is that the public should roll up, okay? And whether or not that can or can happen, we will tell you this, it’s not restricted from framework agreements. We believe that we have strong relationships, and our national limitations in those 3 or 4 manufacturers that do have a ceiling established doesn’t preclude us from buying any of the other public or joining forces. I do also like the fact that many of them appear to be replicating some of the strategies that we’ve been focused on over the last 3 years. And we’re pleased to see that because I believe that the new car retailers, if we can cut off the stream of used vehicles to the used car new entrants in the space, and all they can really get is auction cars or late-model cars, the margins that we can make in the over 3- year-old cars are massive that the new car dealers could have a stronghold on the space for decades to come, even if electrification changes thing or connectivity or all the other things that are in all – in the back of all of our minds over the coming quarters, years and decades. – Bryan DeBoer, President, and CEO, Lithia Motors
- I think there is a natural consolidation that needs to occur among the U.S. auto retail networks. There are simply too many dealers in many of the brands, not all of them, many of the brands to operate in efficient privately owned distribution network. […] And it’s becoming more and more a big player game just because of capital investment and amortizing technology costs and the cost of developing people and things like that. So, I think that trend accelerates and that is the reason that there will be a lot of acquisition opportunities as they have been in the past few years […] And I think that will benefit the remaining larger retail groups. And I think it will benefit the OEMs. And so I think there, we’re going to continue to move to an era of bigger partners for the OEMs. And – so I think that is very much a catalyst for these M&A opportunities. Now, the advantages of scale you know it would seem that we’re not nearly as big as many other groups, yet we’ve been able to create a cost structure that’s just about as competitive as any. So there is a diminishing point of return on scale, I think but there is a benefit to diversity of markets and brands that we can continue to benefit from. And there is potentially a widening of the gap between the ability to operate efficiently – for a smaller operator compared to a bigger operator. – Earl Hesterberg, President and CEO, Group 1 Automotive
- What I have experienced is that when you become as large as we are and you make an acquisition, takes a brand Z and you already own 25 brand Z stores and you want to buy number 26 and number 27, and the negotiation with the manufacturer, they will ask, okay, we will improve number 26 and number 27, but let me tell you what you have to do from store one through 25in order to get approval for the next increment. And if you really add that demand on to what you are acquiring, it really changes the return on investment and so the higher you climb the mountain the more difficult it becomes to keep climbing. […] So, the whole issue of consolidation whether two smaller public traded companies could come together, I can’t say, because I don’t have one of the smaller ones. But I can tell you as far as us acquiring one. I don’t see that’s just going to happen, because you immediately run into a problem of too much density in a given market that you are going to have to divest a significant part of what you just thought, at least that would be for us. So, overlap and too much density in the given market is a real genuine issue for us and so we will not be acquiring any other publicly traded company. I don’t see it pay off to the finish line. – Mike Jackson, Chairman & CEO, AutoNation
At Mercer Capital, we follow the auto industry closely in order to stay current with trends in the marketplace. These trends give insight to 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.